Published on Sunday, September 28, 2003 by The Toronto Star
A confession: For 18 months now, I have been collecting clippings about the political turmoil in Venezuela. But I have been remiss in not writing about it or, more specifically, the media crimes being committed there.
Venezuela is where President Hugo Chavez, a charismatic former paratrooper, not white and not a member of the traditional ruling class, has been fending off what appears to be a regime change that is, if not instigated by the United States, certainly aided and abetted by it. I'd like to say last week's news was filled with stories of how the United States is backing a recall vote to oust Chavez — whom the media love to describe as "anti-democratic'' and "a dictator" — except that most media are not only distorting this story, they're ignoring it.
The thing is, Chavez is nothing like Saddam Hussein — although, it must be said, Chavez did visit the Iraqi leader. It's also true that Chavez is soft on Cuba's Fidel Castro. But, while Chavez did go to prison for trying to overthrow the government in 1992, he has since been democratically elected president, not once but twice: first in a landslide in 1998 and again in 2000, with a solid majority.
And yet the Bush administration, has been working, directly or otherwise, to bring the Chavez government down because, well, because ...
Did I happen to mention oil?
Depending on your source, Venezuela, which supplies 12 per cent of the crude that goes to the U.S., is the world's third-largest (says the CIA), fourth-largest (Associated Press) or fifth-largest (Wall Street Journal) exporter of oil. Naturally, it's of intense interest to the oil-obsessed Bushies.
That's why former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer has spouted such trash as, "President Chavez has had a rule that has been controversial and has not met with widespread popular support within Venezuela ..." or why Secretary of State Colin Powell has questioned Chavez's "understanding of what a democratic system is about."
The poor of Venezuela, the vast majority of the population, love Chavez because he is bringing them not only democracy, but also a chance to access the country's vast natural wealth. For example, as last Sunday's Star revealed, Chavez's land reform laws, which are redistributing 2 million hectares of idle, state-owned property to poor families, are upsetting the wealthy élite who, as in many Latin American states, have long exploited the campesinos. And so they are exercising their economic might to bring Chavez down.
Well, they don't say information is power for nothing. Venezuela's wealthy anti-Chavez class owns the five largest television stations and nine of the 10 major national newspapers. And time and time again in the last few years, particularly in April, 2002, when Chavez's opposition staged a coup against him and again last winter when there was a 64-day oil strike and business lockout, the private media have gone on the attack, in ways that make the U.S. feeding frenzy on the Bill Clinton thong-gate look like a Victorian ladies' tea.
Over and over, they have incited the overthrow of this democratically elected government and viciously manipulated images to make it look bad.
You think that the toppling of the Saddam statue in Baghdad was used as propaganda? You should see how Venezuela's private networks made it look as if Chavez supporters were shooting unarmed government protestors. It's there in the stunning documentary Chavez: Inside The Coup, on CBC Newsworld's The Passionate Eye tonight at 10. The film has won all kinds of international awards, including the top prizes at this year's Banff and Monte Carlo TV festivals, plus scored a standing ovation at this month's Toronto film fest.
The thing about the Venezuelan media is, they often feed the international media. Never do they tell you that the infant mortality rate under Chavez has plummeted or that school enrolment has soared. It's all doom and gloom, linked to the "leftist" Chavez. Just last week for instance, Reuters relied on "local television'' images to report how Chavez forces were terrorizing oil company workers. But having seen Inside The Coup's dissection of the Venezuelan media, I had to discount the story.
Which is not good, either for journalism, democracy or the people of Venezuela. As Naomi Klein noted in The Nation, Venezuela "isn't the only country where a war is being waged over oil, where media owners have become inseparable for the forces clamoring for `regime change' and where the opposition finds itself routinely erased by the nightly news."
I expect that my Venezuela regime change clipping file is going to get mighty fat — and fast.
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