Last week there was a real media hate-fest for Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, with some of the more influential publications on both sides of the Atlantic really hating on the guy. Even by the hate-filled standards to which we have become accustomed, it was impressive.
It's interesting, since this is one of the only countries in the world where the reporting of the more liberal media – NPR or even the New Yorker – is hardly different from that of Fox News or other right-wing media (more on that below).
The funniest episode came from El País, which on Thursday ran a front page picture of a man that they claimed was Chavez, lying on his back in a hospital bed, looking pretty messed-up with tubes in his mouth. The picture was soon revealed as completely fake. Oops! The paper, which is Spain's most influential publication (and with a lot of clout in Latin America, too), had to pull its newspapers off the stands and issue a public apology. Although, as the Venezuelans complained, there was no apology to Chavez or his family. Not surprisingly, since El Pais really hates Chavez. For a really funny pictorial response to El Pais, click here.
The New York Times, for its part, ran yet another hate piece on its op-ed page. Dog bites man. Nothing new here, they have doing this for almost 14 years – most recently just three months ago. This one was remarkably unoriginal, comparing the Chavez government to a Latin American magical realist novel. It contained very little information – but being fact-free allowed the authors to claim that the country had "dwindling productivity" and "an enormous foreign debt load". Productivity has not "dwindled" under Chavez; in fact real GDP per capita, which is mostly driven by productivity growth, expanded by 24 percent since 2004 (for an explanation of why 2004 is a reasonable starting point, see here). In the 20 years prior to Chavez, real GDP per person actually fell. As for the "enormous foreign debt load", Venezuela's foreign public debt is about 28 percent of GDP, and the interest on it is about 2 percent of GDP. If this is enormous – well let's just say these people don't have a good sense of quantity.
The authors were probably just following a general rule, which is that you can say almost anything you want about Venezuela, so long as it is bad – and it usually goes unquestioned. Statistics and data count for very little when the media is presenting its ugly picture.
This is especially true for Jon Lee Anderson, writing in the January 28 issue of the New Yorker ("Slumlord: What has Hugo Chávez wrought in Venezuela?"). He mentions in passing that "the poorest Venezuelans are marginally better off these days". Marginally? From 2004-2011, extreme poverty was reduced by about two-thirds. Poverty was reduced by about one-half. And this measures only cash income. It does not count the access to health care that millions now have, or the doubling of college enrollment – with free tuition for many. Access to public pensions tripled. Unemployment is half of what it was when Chavez took office.
I shouldn't have to emphasise that Venezuela's poverty reduction, real (inflation-adjusted) income growth, and other basic data in the Chavez era are not in dispute among experts, including international statistical agencies such as the World Bank or UN. Even opposition economists use the same data in making their case against the government. It is only journalists like Anderson who avoid letting commonly agreed upon facts and numbers get in the way of their story.
Anderson devotes many thousands of words, in one of America's leading literary magazines, to portraying the dark underside of life in Venezuela – ex-cons and squatters, horrible prisons: "A thick black line of human excrement ran down an exterior wall, and in the yard below was a sea of sludge and garbage several feet deep." He draws on more than a decade of visits to Venezuela to shower the reader with his most foul memories of the society and the government. The article is accompanied by a series of grim, depressing black-and-white photos of unhappy-looking people in ugly surroundings (I couldn't help thinking of all those international surveys that keep finding Venezuelans to be among the happiest people in Latin America and the world – did Anderson never meet even one of these Venezuelans?).
I am all in favour of journalism that exposes the worst aspects of any society. But what makes this piece just another cheap political hack job is the conclusions that the author draws from his narrow, intentionally chosen slice of Venezuelan reality. For example:
They [Venezuelans] are the victims of their affection for a charismatic man… After nearly a generation, Chavez leaves his countrymen with many unanswered questions, but only one certainty: the revolution that he tried to bring about never really took place. It began with Chavez, and with him, most likely it will end.
Really? It sure doesn't look that way. Even Chavez's opponent in the October presidential election, Henrique Capriles, had to promise voters [SP] that he would preserve and actually expand the Chavez-era social programmes that had increased Venezuelans' access to health care and education. And after Chavez beat him by a wide margin of eleven percentage points, Chavez's party increased its share of governorships from 15 to 20 of 23 states, in the December elections that followed. In those elections, Chavez was not even in the country.
But it's the one-sidedness of the New Yorker's reporting that is most overwhelming. Imagine, for example, writing an article about the United States at the end of President Clinton's eight years – interviewing the homeless and the destitute, the people tortured in our prisons, the unemployed and the poor single mothers struggling to feed their children. Could you get away with pretending that this is all of "What Clinton has wrought in America?" Without mentioning that unemployment hit record lows not seen since the 1960s, that poverty was sharply reduced, that it was the longest-running business cycle expansion in US history?
This is an imperfect analogy, since many people outside the US know something about the country, and wouldn't buy such a one-sided story line. And also because the improvements of the Clinton years didn't last that long: the stock market bubble burst and caused a recession in 2001; the gains from the recovery that followed went mostly to the richest one percent of the population; and then the housing bubble burst, causing the worst recession since the Great Depression – from which we are still recovering. Unemployment today is considerably above the level of Clinton's first year in office, and poverty has rebounded dramatically; and we could take another decade to get back to full employment. Whereas in Venezuela, progress has not been reversed; there really is no going back now that the majority of the country has gotten used to sharing in the country's oil wealth – not just through government programmes but primarily through a higher level of employment and income in the private sector. Maybe that's not "revolutionary" enough for Anderson, but it's enough for Venezuelans to keep re-electing their president and his party.
As for the media, it is a remarkable phenomenon, this outpouring of animosity towards Chavez and his government, from across the western media spectrum. How is it that this democratically elected president who hasn't killed anyone or invaded any countries gets more bad press than Saddam Hussein did (aside from the months immediately preceding invasions of Iraq)? Even when he is fighting for his own life?
The western media reporting has been effective. It has convinced most people outside of Venezuela that the country is run by some kind of dictatorship that has ruined it. Fortunately for Venezuelans, they have access to more information about their country than the foreigners who are relying on one-sided and often inaccurate media. So they keep re-electing the president and the party that has improved their lives – much to the annoyance of the major media and its friends.