Opinion and Analysis: Media Watch | Opposition
Our Man in Caracas: The U.S. Media and Henrique Capriles
The presidential candidate of Venezuela’s coalition of opposition parties, Henrique Capriles, hosted a rally on June 10 to formally initiate his campaign against President Hugo Chávez. “Hundreds of thousands” of Venezuelans—according to Reuters, the Associated Press, and The Miami Herald—flooded the streets of downtown Caracas to support his candidacy.
The “good looks of the bachelor candidate” helped attract a huge crowd to the event in which Capriles walked or jogged six miles to register with electoral authorities, “burnishing his image of physical fitness,” per Reuters’s account. He “exuded youthful energy,” said the AP, and had won praise for being an “energetic and dedicated leader” as the governor of Miranda State, according to The Miami Herald.
All three news outlets contrasted Capriles’s vigor with Chávez’s frailty (he is recovering from an undisclosed form of cancer), while conveying Venezuelans’ disgruntlement. Even some Chávez supporters “have grown tired of a murder rate that rivals some war zones, sputtering public services such as electricity and periodic shortages of staple goods,” asserted Reuters. It was only natural, then, that a marcher was quoted stressing, “It’s time for a change.”
The AP, for its part, quoted a housewife who would vote for Capriles “because of his reputation as an efficient administrator and out of fear that Chávez will ruin the economy and drive millions of Venezuelans to emigrate if he is re-elected.” The AP used the housewife’s ominous prediction as the final sentence for its report: “If Chávez emerges as the winner in October, he’s going to destroy this country.”
Censure for Chávez has so thoroughly permeated Venezuela’s body politic, apparently, that even communists oppose him: “Chávez was the great hope for our cause, but we’ve given up on him because he has turned his back on the people even as he claims to be the voice of the people,” The Miami Herald quoted the secretary general of the Bandera Roja (Red Flag) Party as saying.
So it came as no surprise that just one day later, the U.S. press reported that Chávez’s own rally to officially inaugurate his presidential campaign attracted a crowd an entire order of magnitude smaller than that of Capriles. The AP’s headline, “Chavez rallies thousands launching re-election bid”—a figure also used by NPR and the Los Angeles Times—implied that the number of pro-Chávez participants could have been anywhere between 20 to 500 times smaller than the number present at the previous day’s pro-Capriles rally. The AP’s Fabiola Sanchez cited a higher estimate of “tens of thousands” in the body of her piece, but even this number (also used by The Miami Herald) amounts to just a fraction of Capriles’s “hundreds of thousands” of supporters.
Reuters went further in minimizing Chávez’s support. Correspondent Brian Ellsworth provided a sinister explanation for a 66-year-old pro-Chávez retiree’s observations, as she danced in the city square during the rally. “Look at this sea of people; look at the happiness,” she urged. “For every person that came out yesterday, we’ve brought out 10, 20, 30 more. And that's going to be reflected in the election.” But Ellsworth countered this with circumstantial evidence that the event was little more than a Potemkin spectacle:
Hundreds of buses that ferried his followers to Caracas stood parked in side streets. . . . Critics accuse Chavez allies of using state resources to swell demonstrations and forcing government employees to attend. Opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez said the ruling Socialist Party had ordered ministries to help bring 120,000 people to the march, citing what he called an internal party document.
Reuters provided no follow-up on the veracity of the unnamed critics’ accusations, nor did it verify the existence of the internal party document that Leopoldo López cited. This lapse in journalistic ethics is even more remarkable considering that in relying upon López’s hearsay for the final word on Chávez’s mobilization, Reuters displayed exactly the same flaw as Fox News' coverage of Venezuela in 2005. (López, as I will mention in further detail below, is a long-time collaborator of Capriles, and played a crucial role in the short-lived coup government that overthrew Chávez in 2002.)
Ellsworth’s article also failed to include any estimate of the number of participants at Chávez’s rally, despite a widely-distributed Spanish-language dispatch by Reuters itself, which stated in its first paragraph that Chávez was “accompanied by hundreds of thousands of sympathizers.” Although the Spanish news website Público.es and Britain’s The Guardian corroborated this estimate, no major U.S.-based news source used it to describe the number of participants in Chávez’s rally.
Far more troubling than partial reporting on the popularity of the two candidates is the U.S. media’s superficial portrayalof Capriles as simply a “a polite, non-confrontational politician,” above the fray of Chávez’s insults and negativity. “I want to be everybody's president, not the president of a single group,” the AP quoted Capriles as saying. “I am not anybody's enemy,” he continued. “I'm the enemy of problems.”
At times, Capriles deviates from this persona, as when he referred to poll numbers—many of which consistently show Chávez leading by double-digit margins—as the work of “immoral mafiosos,” according to Reuters. More importantly, his political record betrays far-right tendencies that contradict his inclusive, conciliatory image. As the BBC notes, Capriles “was involved with a group of other young politicians in setting up in 2000 a new opposition party Primero Justicia.” In the lead-up to the 2002 coup d’etat against Chávez, which killed dozens, Primero Justicia indirectly received hundreds of thousands of dollars and training from a foreign government—in this case, the United States, through the National Endowment for Democracy, an agency largely financed by Congress. Leopoldo López and Leopoldo Martinez, two of Primero Justicia’s other top leaders, went on to play key roles in the 2002 coup government of Venezuelan business magnate Pedro Carmona. López—who Reuters deemed fit to comment on the supposedly authoritarian nature of last week's pro-Chávez rally—himself signed on to Carmona's 2002 decree to abolish the General Assembly, the Supreme Court, and the Constitution.
During this U.S.-backed two-day coup, hundreds of anti-Chávez demonstrators destroyed cars outside the Cuban embassy in the Caracas municipality of Baruta. They also cut off water and electricity to the building. Capriles, then the mayor of Baruta, was filmed approaching the Cuban ambassador and reportedly asking for proof that there were no Chávez administration officials who had sought refuge inside the embassy. The Cuban embassy later released a statement condemning Capriles’s behavior: “The immediate responsibility of Mr. Capriles Radonsky and other Venezuelan state authorities was demonstrated when they failed to act diligently in order to prevent an increase in the aggression to which our embassy was subjected, causing serious damage and endangering the lives of officials and their families in clear violation of national and international law.”
It is in this light that Chávez’s public broadsides against Capriles become more understandable. The Miami Herald quotedChávez at his June 11 rally as saying, “We have made the vital strategic decision that every time there’s aggression from the imperialists and the bourgeoisie . . . we will respond by deepening the socialist revolution.” But the Herald leaves out any background information about the 2002 coup d'etat, in which the military reportedly threatened to bomb the presidential palace. Only within this context does the Herald’s quotation of Chávez make sense: “‘Their plan is the imperialist project from Washington,’ he said. ‘They are the puppets of imperialism…and now they hope to trick the people to take back the Miraflores [presidential palace]. But they’ll never get it back.’”
The truly remarkable aspect about Capriles’s candidacy is that more than a decade of aggressive poverty reduction and social spending has created a political climate that has forced an otherwise reactionary opposition to fully endorse Chávez’s social programs in order to be viable with the Venezuelan public. Ten years after the Cuban embassy fiasco, Capriles says he would be “mad” to end Chávez’s Barrio Adentro program, which dispatches Cuban doctors to poor neighborhoods in Venezuela to provide residents with free healthcare. Capriles reassured Venezuelans by saying “the missions belong to the people,” and on a separate occasion announced, “I want to expand them.” In a fairly stunning transformation, the opposition—rather than plotting coups and carrying out debilitating oil strikes—has rallied around Capriles, who has publicly modeled his platform after that of former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who the AP said “financ[ed] expansive social programs . . . that made him popular among the poor.”
As all of the press coverage duly notes, Capriles has an uphill battle, and the poll numbers are not in his favor. It’s hard not to see why. As journalist Stephanie Kennedy notes in the Huffington Post, Venezuela was ranked the “happiest” country in South America by Columbia University, which she attributes, in large part, to serious improvements in Venezuelans’ material conditions under the Chávez administration:
The country currently boasts the highest minimum wage in Latin America and its latest bill for workers rights hails in a new era of legal protection and social security to a large part of the population who had up until recently been labouring within informal and vulnerable frameworks. Domestic workers, voluntary full time carers of family relatives and housekeepers now too have rights and a state pension, whilst peasants, fisherman and others practicing the more traditional trades, who have always been omitted from formal registers, will now enjoy the same rights as their urban peers. There are local clinics where people had never seen a doctor before, new brick-layered houses for people who had been living in cardboard slums, and subsidized food products and medicines.
A leader seeking reelection with a track record of spearheading the policies listed above can surely afford some bravado on the campaign trail.
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