Opinion and Analysis: International | Media Watch
Little Credibility: U.S. Coverage of Iranian-Latin American Relations
Last January, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took a weeklong tour of Latin America, visiting Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, and finally Ecuador. In Caracas, Venezuela, Ahmadinejad and President Hugo Chávez signed new cooperation agreements in agriculture, industry, science, and technology.1 In Nicaragua, the Iranian president attended the inauguration of President Daniel Ortega to a second consecutive term. Ahmadinejad also pushed for investment projects, including a hydroelectric power plant in Ecuador.2 But the primary purpose of the trip, as Time magazine described it, was to show “the world that Iran isn’t as isolated as Washington claims.”3
In the U.S. media, where there are no two greater villains than Ahmadinejad and Chávez, it was not hard to predict that the coverage of the first stop on the tour would result in an onslaught of negative headlines filled with hysterics at what such a meeting could mean for U.S. national security. The media portrayed the two presidents, as they often do, as cartoonish thugs. The Miami Herald called Ahmadinejad’s trip a “tour of tyrants” and painted the diplomatic mission as an unusually dangerous excursion with potentially far-reaching implications for U.S. national security.4 Chávez and Ahmadinejad are a “diabolical duo” who might likely conspire, the Boston Herald added, to “attack the homeland and/or U.S. interests in Latin America.”5
According to a Wall Street Journal article, Chávez and Ahmadinejad—both “reactionary warriors against capitalism”—are finding “fleeting solace in each other’s arms.” The meeting, the Journal reported, “speaks volumes . . . about the kinds of countries willing to publicly embrace Iran.”6 The U.S. media was nearly monolithic in condemning the visits as dangerous alliances between anti-U.S. forces that, as the Boston Herald put it, “provide Iran with the cover for all manner of dark dealings.”7
The Washington Post published six articles that mentioned the trip—including both news articles and editorials—that were filled with pejoratives aimed at the self-described socialist leaders in Latin America. When pejoratives were not used, baseless assertions dominated the coverage. A January 7 Post article described Chávez and Ahmadinejad as “like-minded” and stated that Chávez had “taken sides with Tehran against Israel and adhered to the Iranian government’s line that domestic critics of its policies are little more than CIA stooges.”
But Chávez is quite different than the Iranian leader, and the only significant trait they share is opposition to U.S. policies—which, in the U.S. media, is evidently an “unthinkable thought.”8 But to compare the records of Iran and Latin American nations is extremely dubious. Chávez, for instance, was elected democratically and, while not perfect, has a human rights record that is significantly better than Iran’s.
Other Latin American leaders were also targets of this scorn. The Post called Ecuadoran president Rafael Correa an “autocratic acolyte of Hugo Chávez” who is “usually and deservedly ignored outside of his own country.”9 Another Post editorial described the entire tour as a useless endeavor that “serves mainly to underline Iran’s isolation,” which, if true, makes the media hysteria over the trip all the more curious.10 In fact, in the aftermath of the trip, the U.S. House of Representatives went as far as to pass a bill called the Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act, which directed the State Department to submit to Congress a “strategy to address Iran’s growing presence and activity in the Western Hemisphere.”11 According to the bill’s sponsor, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), cozy relations with Latin America “have the potential to give Iran the platform that it needs in the region to carry out attacks against our homeland.”12
U.S. media coverage of the Ahmadinejad trip failed on two important counts. First, it conflated Venezuela and Iran. Venezuela has internationally recognized elections and works to empower the working class and the poor. Chávez’s opponents in Venezuela are free to broadcast their discontent and do.13 Venezuela may in fact be the only nation where the media could publicly call for a coup of an elected leader, as some Venezuelan media outlets did in 2002, and remain on the air. Certainly, such activities would not be permitted in the United States. In contrast, Iran, an Islamist state, jails dissidents, executes gays, and is ruled with absolute power by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Yet for the U.S. media, Iran and the left-leaning Latin American governments are all of a piece. This assumption undergirds the demonization of the “pink tide” leaders as dangerous pawns in Iran’s supposed efforts to build nuclear weapons—efforts that are unconfirmed by U.S. intelligence agencies or the International Atomic Energy Agency.14
The second failure of this coverage was the lack of any serious discussion of why Venezuela and other countries in the region are interested in building a relationship with Iran. That is, although the nations differ in their respect for democracy and in how their governments function, they do share some common tactics in surviving in a world that is dominated by the United States—which seeks to isolate these regimes and remove them from power, one way or another. The United States chooses to support any number of undemocratic regimes across the world, but is rarely held to account for it in the media.
If the media touched on how these nations have been isolated from the U.S.-dominated economic world order, the U.S. public might better understand why they cooperate. Venezuela, for instance, has opted out of such financial institutions as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, rightly critiquing them as U.S.-dominated tools to spread neoliberalism at the expense of the working class all over the world.15 Iran has been isolated from the global economy through various sanctions, urged for strongly by U.S. presidents, including Obama.16 So it makes sense that these countries would, as a matter of economic survival, seek to do business with nations that are not tightly controlled by the United States and the institutions it controls. This is also one reason there is such deep economic cooperation between many Latin American countries—such as the economic relationship between Cuba and Venezuela, which has garnered many attacks from U.S. power brokers in the corporate media.17 But the actual purpose of international relations—to seek mutually beneficial agreements between two or more different nations—is ignored when U.S. enemies are the subject. When the U.S. engages in diplomacy, however, the story is different.
The United States has alliances with many undemocratic countries that engage in all kinds of human rights abuses. Yet the U.S. relationships with, for example, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have been described by the media and the pundit class as geopolitically essential, if unfortunate. It is useful to compare U.S. media coverage of Iranian–Latin American diplomatic visits with that of the United States and its autocratic allies. The U.S.-Saudi relationship is instructive, since the Saudi government is known to be undemocratic and an egregious violator of human rights, according to numerous groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.18
Unlike when Iran or left-leaning Latin American governments are involved, the U.S. media does not use these diplomatic visits as a chance to skewer the United States for engaging a regime with a poor human rights record. Instead, the media generally examine the purpose of the mission in terms of geopolitics. When President George W. Bush made his last visit as president to Saudi Arabia in 2008, The Washington Post did not attack the United States for engaging with an undemocratic regime. Rather, it considered the U.S. objectives, noting that Bush had “launched a new round of personal diplomacy with Persian Gulf nations,” diplomacy “aimed at persuading Arab countries to support U.S. efforts to achieve Palestinian-Israeli peace, contain Iran and stabilize Iraq.” The phrase “human rights” did not appear in the article, nor did it appear in the 14 articles the Post published covering Bush’s Saudi visit.19 But when covering the Iran trip to Venezuela, the Post quoted the U.S. president condemning Venezuela for having a “relationship with a country that violates universal human rights.”20
During Bush’s 2008 trip, the Post focused on issues of importance to the United States, such as Bush’s appeal for Saudi Arabia to produce more oil to help curb the rising gas prices that were dominating national discussion in the United States in 2008, or a major arms deal the two nations had just agreed on. The closest the Post came to critiquing Saudi Arabia’s policies was in an article noting that Bush would “step cautiously in discussing reform issues”:
Speaking on background under White House rules, the official said the administration is taking heart in incremental steps, such as municipal elections.
“This is a conservative society, and it is moving at a pace that King Abdullah believes is appropriate to that society,” the official said. “But he’s a man who thinks deeply about the future of his country and I think understands that it needs to change.” 21
Likewise, when Obama visited Saudi Arabia in 2009, the media paid little mind to Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses. The New York Times did not mention Saudi abuses at all in its coverage of Obama’s visit to Riyadh, and the Post followed suit.22
It is hard not to notice the difference in tone when the Post tackles Saudi abuses, compared with the paper’s tone when it focuses on the Latin American left or Iran. This is especially striking since the Latin American nations on Iran’s agenda have human rights records that are nothing like that of Saudi Arabia.
The Times’ coverage was similar. In the 23 articles mentioning Saudi Arabia the week of Obama’s 2009 trip, only one included the phrase “human rights”—a Maureen Dowd column that touched on the issue briefly and lightheartedly.23 Otherwise, the tone was serious and centered on U.S. issues, notably gas prices and the arms deal the countries had agreed upon that week.24 Bush had also visited Egypt that week, where according to the Times, he “lavished praise on President Hosni Mubarak” while “publicly avoiding mention of the government’s actions in jailing or exiling opposition leaders and its severe restrictions on opposition political activities.”25 The Times did at least raise the issue, but it indulged in none of the hyperbole that dominated its coverage of the Ahmadinejad’s Latin America tour.
The Times and other media outlets managed to take the Saudi-U.S. relationship with seriousness. In contrary, the U.S. media coverage repeatedly made a big joke of the relationship between Iran and the Americas. The CBS News website actually headlined one of its stories about Ahmadinejad’s visit to Cuba, “New BFFs? [Best Friends Forever] Ahmadinejad Visits, Jokes With Chávez.”26 The article, typical of others across the United States, simply made light of the leaders’ comments but never seriously addressed the larger issues (such as if evidence exists showing Iran is building nuclear weapons). That the media seem to dismiss the tour as a joke, while at the same time ramping up fears that somehow Iranian relations in the Americas poses a security risk to the United States, only further shows how little credibility there is in the U.S. corporate media coverage of the Iranian–Latin American relationship.
Michael Corcoran has written for The Boston Globe, the U.K. Guardian, The Christian Science Monitor, The Nation, Extra!, and other publications. He is on Twitter @MCorcoran3.
1. Tamara Pearson, “Iran-Venezuela Relationship ‘About Peace,’ ” Venezuelanalysis.com, January 10, 2012.
2. Business Week, “Ahmadinejad Woos Chavez-Led Allies in Latest Latin America Tour,” January 20, 2012.
3. Tim Padgett, “Ahmadinejad Goes on Tour: What’s Iran’s Agenda in Latin America?” Time .com, January 10, 2012.
4. Jim Wyss, “Iran Leader’s ‘Tour of Tyrants’ Raises Concern in U.S, “ The Miami Herald, January 6, 2012.
6. Ezequiel Minaya and Kejal Vyas, “Iran’s Leader Finds Solace in Venezuelan Visit,” The Wall Street Journal, January 9, 2012.
7. Peter Brooks, “Iran Chums Up With Chavez,” The Boston Herald, January 11, 2012.
8. Juan Forero, “Ahmadinejad Visits Ally in Venezuela,” The Washington Post, January 9, 2012; for “unthinkable thought line, see Noam Chomsky, Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies (South End Press, 1999), 33.
9. The Washington Post, “Ecuador’s Bully,” editorial, January 12, 2012.
10. The Washington Post, “Feeling the Pressure,” editorial, January 11, 2012.
11. Congressional Bill, “H.R. 3783: Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act of 2012,” govtrack.us, introduced January 18, 2012.
12. Committee of Foreign Affairs, “Ros-Lehtinen Advances Legislation to Stop Iran Threat in Western Hemisphere,” press release, March 7, 2012, available at foreignaffairs.house.gov.
13. Daniel Denvir, “Beyond the Media Hysteria on Hugo Chávez,” nacla.org, May 11, 2009.
14. Mark Hosenball and Tabassum Zakaria, “Special Report—Intel Shows Iran Nuclear Threat Not Imminent,” Reuters, March 23, 2012.
15. Oliver Christian, “Chavez IMF Bombshell Sows Venezuela Debt Confusion,” Reuters, May 3, 2007.
16. Reuters, “FACTBOX: Sanctions Against Iran,” October 13, 2009.
17. Daisy Valera, “More Cuban Doctors in Venezuela,” The Havana Times, October 24, 2009; Mary O’Grady, “Venezuela’s Docs Flee—So Does Chávez,” The Wall Street Journal, July 18, 2011.
18. Human Rights Watch, “World Report 2011: Saudi Arabia,” available at hrw.org; Amnesty International, “2011: World Report,” available at amnesty.org.
19. Data from a Lexis search covering the week of the trip.
20. Forero, “Ahmadinejad Visits Ally in Venezuela.”
21. Michael Abramowitz, “Bush Nudges Mideast on Democracy; Dissidents Skeptical, Saying U.S. Has Overlooked Abuses,” The Washington Post, January 14, 2008.
22. Jeff Zeleny and Helen Cooper, “Rival Messages as Obama Lands in the Mideast,” The New York Times, June 3, 2009; Scott Wilson, “Obama Meets Saudi Leader; Al-Qaeda Rails; Bin Laden Accuses U.S. President of Sowing ‘Revenge and Hatred,’ ” The Washington Post, June 4, 2009.
23. Maureen Dowd, “Faith, Freedom and Bling in the Middle East,” The New York Times, January 16, 2008.
24. Steven Lee Myers, “Bush Prods Saudi Arabia on High Oil Prices,” The New York Times, January 16, 2008; The New York Times, “U.S. Plans Sale of 900 Missiles to Saudi Arabia,” news, January 15, 2008.
25. Steven Lee Myers, “Bush Lauds Egypt Leader, Avoiding Record on Dissent,” The New York Times, January 17, 2008.
26. January 9, 2012, cbsnews.com
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