Chávez bashing has long been a moral fixture of deliberation among U.S. elites. The most recent examples appear in the July 21st editions of the New York Times and Washington Post, which document allegations that Chávez is responsible for the rise in crime in Venezuela and the destablilization of Colombia. Of major concern for the Washington Post is a recently released report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) that outlines supposed “corruption at high levels of President Hugo Chávez’s government and state aid to Colombia’s drug-trafficking guerillas [which] have made Venezuela a major launching pad for cocaine bound for the United States and Europe.” Attention is directed to Colombia’s Marxist FARC guerillas, estimated by the Post to control 60 percent of the Colombian cocaine trade. Republican Senator Richard Lugar is afforded space in the Post to demonize Venezuela for “becoming a narco-state, heavily dependent on and beholden to the international trade in illegal drugs.”
Not to be outdone, the Times’ July 21st story implicates Chávez in the growing abduction of citizens living in the city of Barinas, located in western Venezuela. Barinas suffers from abduction rates over 3.5 times higher than the rest of the country, and the city is currently governed by Chávez’s brother Adán Chávez. The Times cites no evidence of the Chávez family’s complicity in Barinas kidnappings, but this hasn’t stopped the paper from constructing generic links between “armed gangs [that] thrive off the disarray [in Barinas] while Mr. Chávez’s family tightens its grip on the state.” Readers won’t find even the pretense of objectivity in such incendiary rhetoric.
Searching for actual evidence of a connection between Chávez and the kidnappings is not a part of the Times’ game plan. They’d rather muddy public discourse with vague polemics directed at the Chávez regime. In fact the Times concedes that Chávez’s main involvement in Barinas centers not on harming the poor (who have increasingly suffered under the kidnappings), but on efforts to improve the lot of the masses via the implementation of land reform and the use of oil funds for welfare programs.
Attacks on Chávez also accompanied Venezuela’s 2009 referendum, which repealed the country’s 12-year presidential term limit. The Times editorialized in the run-up to the referendum that Chávez was a “standard issue autocrat - hoarding power, stifling dissent, and spending the nation’s oil wealth on political support.” Such attacks, ironically, are followed by admissions that Chávez’s support derives from the social welfare programs he implements, which benefit the overwhelming majority of poor Venezuelans. His support for the masses is written off without discussion as inconsequential, however, as the Times paternalistically and calls on Venezuelans who “believe in their democracy” to “vote no” on ending term limits.
A number of points are worth reflecting upon when assessing the attacks on Chávez. Regarding the Colombia issue, literally no context is provided in Times and Post reporting on the instrumental role the U.S. has played in creating the drug crisis. No attention is directed to the fact that U.S. leaders have spent billions of dollars training and supplying right-wing, anti-FARC paramilitary groups in Colombia (which are allied with the Colombian government), and are heavily involved in the cocaine trade themselves. Additionally, there is no discussion of the ambiguity surrounding Chávez’s supposed incitement of the Colombian-Venezuelan conflict. Much ambiguity does exist, nonetheless, on this question. Human Rights Watch, although it has been extremely critical of Chávez (perhaps justifiably so), is unable to uncover any convincing evidence that Chávez is supporting FARC guerillas. We should also remember that it was Chávez himself who publicly railed against the FARC, stating that the age of “guerilla warfare is history.” He has supported a return to peace negotiations between the FARC and Colombian government, and pushed the FARC to end their terrorist practice of abducting civilians and government officials as hostages.
On the issue of Chávez’s “dictatorial” politics, the U.S. media’s coverage resembles more propaganda than reality. U.S. papers have an awfully difficult time explaining how a dictator can be democratically elected four times in the last ten years - in 1998, 2000, 2004, and 2006, particularly in contests certified as transparent and legitimate by international elections monitors. The Times is also at a loss to explain the results of the 2009 referendum, which in repealing presidential term limits, was certified as fair and democratic by international observers.
The most obvious explanation for the Times’ attacks on Chávez is that the paper is contemptuous of Venezuelan democracy. Chávez has long enjoyed strong democratic support from the majority of Venezuelans, while provoking the outrage of American politicians who see Venezuela as fertile, but unutilized ground for corporate investment. Let’s consider the evidence: 1. Chávez has been repeatedly re-elected by margins that George W. Bush could have never dreamed of attaining. 2. A Gallup International poll from 2007 reaffirms the democratic legitimacy of Venezuelan politics in a number of ways. 53 percent of Venezuelans generally feel that their country is “governed by the will of the people” under Chávez. Additionally, 67 percent feel that elections in Venezuela are conducted in a “fair” as opposed to “unfair” manner. Furthermore, as my analysis of the 2007 Gallup poll shows, poor and unemployed Venezuelans (the poor making up the majority of the public) are statistically more likely to believe that the country is governed by majority will and that the country’s elections are free, democratic, and fair. This stands in great contrast to Venezuela’s wealthy and employed who are more likely to reject these claims.
One would not get the impression from U.S. media coverage that it is U.S., rather than Venezuelan officials who are viewed with suspicion in Venezuela. A 2007 poll by the BBC revealed that most Latin Americans who were surveyed viewed the U.S. unfavorably and opposed the former Bush administration’s foreign policy activities. Majorities in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Mexico felt that the U.S. influence in the world was “mainly negative,” while between 65-92 percent opposed the U.S. handling of the war in Iraq. Assessments of individual political leaders found that Chávez enjoyed high levels of support from Venezuelans, while former President Bush enjoyed low levels of support throughout not only Venezuela, but the entire region.
Chávez’s popularity, as American journalists begrudgingly admit, is based upon his willingness to put the needs of Venezuela’s poor masses ahead of those of business elites. This does not mean that he’s a saint or that political repression should not be a serious concern for those living throughout the hemisphere. No political leader deserves a blank check to consolidate political power. But what seems to escape U.S. leaders is that Venezuelan democracy assigns the task of holding leaders accountable to the people of Venezuela, rather than to “enlightened” U.S. elites.
Chávez’s “Bolivarian Revolution” is indeed wildly popular in amongst Venezuelans. He is succeeding in promoting a plethora of social welfare programs paid for by the country’s oil export revenues. Chávez is spearheading efforts to promote gender equality, government sponsored health care, universal higher education, increased state pension funding, land redistribution, and an expansion of public housing, amongst other programs. Chávez’s welfare revolution is significantly improving the lives of the citizenry. A 50 percent increase in social welfare spending from 1999-2005 (in the first 6 years of Chávez’s presidency) was accompanied by decreases in infant mortality, an increase in school enrollment an increase in individual disposable income, and a decrease in poverty. From 1997-2005, the national poverty rate fell from 56 to 38 percent of the population. By 2005, an estimated 50 percent of the Venezuelan people enjoyed government health care, while the same number also enjoyed government food subsidies. The Bolivarian Revolution, one should remember, also took place under fairly stable economic growth, ranging from 6-18 percent of GDP a year from 2004-2008. This trend stands on its head the assumptions of U.S. reporters that socialist policies are a major obstacle to economic stability and prosperity.
No one in the U.S. should be surprised that the Venezuelan people support Chávez because of his welfare policies. This basic fact, however, is concealed in Times editorials that frame Chávez as a “Latin American strongman” who “exercise[s] near-total political and military control of his country” through the perversion of elections and the nationalization of natural resources. Media distortions of Latin American politics are of course nothing new. The Times and Post have always looked at Latin America through neoliberal, capitalist eyes, and coverage of Venezuela deviates little from this pattern.
Anthony DiMaggio teaches Global and American Politics at Illinois State University. He is the author of Mass Media, Mass Propaganda: Examining American News in the "War on Terror (2008) and When Media Goes to War (forthcoming February 2010). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org