The Op-Ed Assassination of Hugo Chávez

U.S. op-ed pages' collective derision of the Chávez government reveals profound contradictions within the commercial press. While editorial boards parrot official U.S. rhetoric about "democracy promotion" abroad, they have refused to provide space for commentary representing popular opinion in Venezuela.

The original version of this article appeared in the December 2005 issue of Extra!, the magazine of the U.S. media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (http://www.fair.org/). The article has been slightly revised.

After televangelist Pat Robertson first publicly called for the assassination of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez Frias (700 Club, 8/22/05), the editors of several major U.S. newspapers were quick to denounce his outrageous incitement to violence. However, in criticizing the conservative televangelist, the U.S. prestige press overlooked its own highly antagonistic treatment of Venezuela’s president, which has surely contributed to the heated political climate in which Robertson makes such threats.

Even so-called "moderate" columnists have contributed to the deterioration of U.S.-Venezuela relations by distorting the Venezuelan government’s domestic and foreign policy record. Robertson may indeed be "just a garden-variety crackpot with friends in high places," as the New York Times opined (8/25/05), but the televangelist’s erroneous characterization of Venezuela’s president as a "strong-arm dictator" is hardly distinguishable from, say, Thomas Friedman’s contention that Chávez is an "autocrat" (New York Times, 3/27/05).

In studying the opinion pages of the top 25 circulation newspapers in the United States during the first six months of 2005, Extra! found that 95 percent of the nearly 100 press commentaries that examined Venezuelan politics expressed clear hostility to the country’s democratically elected president.

Distribution of U.S. commentaries about Venezuela, by newspaper (January 12, 2005 – July 12, 2005)

Consistent with the U.S. media’s habit of personalizing international political disputes, commentaries frequently disparaged Chávez as a political "strongman," treating him as if he were the country’s sole and all-powerful political actor. U.S. op-ed pages scarcely mentioned the existence of Venezuela’s democratically elected National Assembly, much less its independent legislative role. Commentaries almost invariably omitted the Venezuelan government’s extensive popular support, as evidenced by Chávez’s resounding victory in the August 2004 referendum on his presidency.

Mainstream newspapers rarely publish commentaries by political analysts who sympathize with the Chávez government’s policies of extending education, healthcare, subsidized food and micro-credits to the country’s poor. It’s nearly impossible to find a U.S. op-ed page with commentary like that of Julia Buxton, the British scholar of Venezuelan politics, who argues (Venezuelanalysis.com, 4/23/05) that the Chávez government "has brought marginalized and excluded people into the political process and democratized power."

U.S. op-ed pages’ collective derision of the Chávez government reveals profound contradictions within the commercial press. While editorial boards parrot official U.S. rhetoric about "democracy promotion" abroad, they have refused to provide space for commentary representing popular opinion in Venezuela. In spite of the fact that recent polls indicate that Chávez’s domestic approval rating has surpassed 70 percent, almost all commentaries about Venezuela represent the views of a small minority of the country, led by a traditional economic elite that has repeatedly attempted to overthrow the government in clearly anti-democratic ways.

In presenting opinions that are almost exclusively hostile to the Chávez government, U.S. commentaries about Venezuela serve as little more than a campaign of indoctrination against a democratic political project that challenges U.S. political and economic domination of South America. The near-absence of alternative perspectives about Venezuela has prevented U.S. readers from weighing opposing arguments so as to form their own opinions about the Chávez government.

The strongman who would be dictator

In assessing Latin American governments, U.S. columnists generally operate on the unspoken assumption that acquiescence to U.S. leadership of the hemisphere is a natural prerequisite to "democracy." By this definition, Venezuela’s government–which frequently speaks out in opposition to U.S. meddling in the region–is considered "authoritarian." Gone is the elementary principle that majority rule and popular sovereignty serve as the basic foundations of democracy.

Having no basis to question the Chávez government’s popular mandate, op-ed pages resort to casting the president as heavy-handed. Such negative portrayals of Venezuela’s government were particularly common in the Miami Herald, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and L.A. Times, which accounted for more than 75 percent of commentaries about Venezuela.

The near uniformity of the op-ed pages’ distorted characterizations of Venezuelan politics reveals their propagandistic nature. The Miami Herald‘s Andrés Oppenheimer called Chávez a "democratically elected populist strongman" (2/27/05), claiming that he has engaged in "piecemeal destruction of the democratic system" (1/30/05). Similarly, the Herald‘s editorial board (5/8/05) warned that "democracy remains very much at risk under [Chávez’s] demagogic sway."

The Wall Street Journal‘s Mary Anastasia O’Grady labeled Chávez a "tyrant" (1/21/05) and "strongman" (4/29/05), claiming that he has presided over "the collapse of democracy" (2/11/05) in Venezuela. Three Journal editorials also referred to Chávez as a "strongman" (1/14/05, 3/14/05, 5/25/05), and the editorial board went so far as to suggest that Parade magazine should consider placing Chávez on its annual list of the world’s worst dictators (2/15/05).

Jackson Diehl, the Washington Post‘s deputy editorial editor (3/28/05), claimed that Chávez is "well on his way to destroying what was once the most stable and prosperous democracy in Latin America." The Los Angeles Times (5/29/05) called Chávez a "would-be dictator," claiming that he engages in "undemocratic tactics."

Other major U.S. newspapers have cast Venezuela’s president in nearly verbatim terms. The Houston Chronicle (2/18/05) called Chávez "authoritarian" and a "strongman," while the Chicago Tribune (6/25/05) labeled him "autocratic." USA Today (4/25/05) editorialized that Chávez “consolidates power in decidedly undemocratic ways," while the Chicago Sun-Times‘ Robert Novak (2/14/05) asserted that Chávez is "solidifying
dictatorial power."

“Democracy and free enterprise”

The U.S. media’s distorted characterizations of Venezuela’s government were typified by Diehl (Washington Post, 1/17/05), who claimed that Chávez is "aggressively moving to eliminate the independence of the media and judiciary, criminalize opposition and establish state control over the economy."

The Post more explicitly conflated democracy with U.S.-sponsored "free market" policies in a January 14 editorial, in which it asserted that Chávez’s "assault on private property is merely the latest step in what has been a rapidly escalating ‘revolution’… that is undermining the foundations of democracy and free enterprise."

The notion that U.S.-sponsored neo-liberalism is the only economic model compatible with democracy was further promoted by the Miami Herald (5/8/05), which declared that "the pugnacious Mr. Chávez is determined to push his populist model to the people of the region as a competitor to real democracies."

Aside from the fact that there is no state-sponsored "assault on private property" in Venezuela, the Post and Herald made no effort to explain how state intervention in the economy negates the Chávez government’s democratic credentials. There is, in fact, a long tradition of pro-development state intervention in Latin American democracies. The Chávez government’s land-reform policies–which form the basis of the Post‘s claim that Chávez attacks private property–come in the wake of several democratic experiments in agrarian reform in countries as diverse as Chile, Brazil, Bolivia and Guatemala.

Contrary to the Post and Herald‘s warped depiction of the Chávez’s economic policies as anti-democratic, those policies largely reflect the broad popular rejection of U.S.-sponsored "free-market" policies in Venezuela. In the Post‘s only commentary during the period surveyed that was favorable to the Chávez government, columnist Harold Meyerson (4/13/05) astutely pointed out that Latin America’s recent political swing to the left has come about democratically. Discussing the possibility that Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador might be elected president of Mexico, Meyerson noted:

“Coming after the elections of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil, Nestor Kirchner in Argentina and Hugo Chávez (repeatedly) in Venezuela, it would be one more indication, a huge one, that Latin America has rejected an economics of corporate autonomy, public austerity and no worker rights.”

Separation of powers

In addition to ignoring the Venezuelan government’s popular mandate to carry out its policies, columnists ignore the Venezuelan National Assembly’s role in formulating major political legislation, such as the recent expansion of the Supreme Court and the Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television. U.S. op-ed pages erroneously portray Chávez as the author of all such legislation. For example, Oppenheimer (Miami Herald, 6/5/05) contended that Chávez "single-handedly packed his country’s Supreme Court with loyalists."

In reality, the expansion of Venezuela’s five-chamber Supreme Court was first debated and then approved by the National Assembly. Pro-government legislators argued that the existing number of judges could not adequately handle their caseloads (Venezuelanalysis.com, 5/27/04). Venezuelan legal expert Carlos Escarrá had pointed out that the court’s constitutional and political chambers were backlogged with thousands of cases (Venezuelanalysis.com, 5/17/04).

In contrast to the U.S. system, in which the president makes judicial appointments and the Senate votes on whether to confirm them, Venezuela’s National Assembly selects Supreme Court magistrates. In the process of expanding the court, the Assembly selected 17 new justices from a list of 157 candidates pre-selected by a committee made up of representatives of the offices of the human rights ombudsman, the attorney general and the comptroller general (Radio Nacional de Venezuela, 12/13/04). Only in propaganda can this process be described as Chávez having "single-handedly packed" Venezuela’s court.

Columnists who attack the "stacking" of Venezuela’s Supreme Court also neglect to explain the political context within which the National Assembly voted to increase the number of magistrates. Among U.S. op-ed writers, only the progressive U.S. economist Mark Weisbrot (Miami Herald, 12/20/04) pointed out that Venezuela’s Supreme Court had refused to prosecute military officers who temporarily overthrew the elected government in April 2002.

In light of the court’s failure to defend the country’s democratic institutions against violent attempts to subvert them, Weisbrot argued that it was not unreasonable for the National Assembly to expand the Court (Christian Science Monitor, 8/11/04). "If you had a Supreme Court in the U.S. that ruled that the people who participated in a military coup could not be prosecuted, Congress would impeach those justices," Weisbrot contends.

U.S. commentaries are also inaccurate in asserting that Venezuela’s media law was simply "pushed through" the National Assembly by Chávez. Venezuelan legislators not only deliberated about the law, but also held in-depth studies of other countries’ communication laws in drafting it. Among the communication laws from which legislators drew inspiration were those of England, France, Switzerland, Spain, Argentina, Mexico and the United States.

When the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress passes a piece of legislation and George W. Bush signs it into law, one scarcely finds U.S. commentaries asserting that the president "pushed" the legislation through a "compliant" congress. However, when Venezuela’s democratically elected National Assembly undertakes a similarly complex process of devising legislation that Chávez subsequently signs into law, U.S. commentaries portray the country’s legislative process as if it were stage-managed by Chávez.

Guilt by association

Another method that op-ed pages use to cast Venezuela’s president as "authoritarian" is to highlight his relationship with Cuban leader Fidel Castro. In this case, the principle upon which columnists base their argument is not only irrational but also selectively applied. To point to Venezuela’s strategic international alliance with Cuba as "evidence" that
Venezuela is copying the Cuban model is no more valid than to argue that the United States is becoming a monarchy on account of its strategic international relationship with the Saudi royal family.

Unfortunately, the faulty logic of classifying a country’s political system on the basis of its strategic international relationships is all too common in op-ed coverage of Venezuela. For example, in charging that Chávez is "eroding the institutions on which democracies depend," the only supposed evidence that the Washington Post‘s Fred Hiatt (5/30/05) offered was Chávez’s "embrace" of Fidel Castro. Similarly, the Wall Street Journal‘s O’Grady (4/1/05) labeled Chávez a "Castroite," and ludicrously claimed (7/8/05) that Venezuela is now a "Cuban province."

Such commentaries failed to distinguish between the political and economic systems of Cuba and Venezuela. The two governments have a mutual interest in countering U.S. political and economic domination of the hemisphere and reaping the benefits of an agreement whereby Cuban healthcare experts and teachers assist impoverished Venezuelan neighborhoods in exchange for Venezuelan oil at preferential prices.

However, as the U.S.-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs noted (6/21/05), Venezuela’s "new socialism" differs from Cuba’s "real socialism" in that it is "significantly more tolerant of private economic enterprise" and considerably more experimental in its "mixed economy" approach to achieving socialist goals. Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution "promotes state intervention in the economy yet tolerates private business, and mobilizes society through [Chávez’s] revolutionary party, but allows political opposition the necessary vehicles to proselytize as well," COHA noted.

A destabilizing force

Columnists pointed to Venezuela’s strategic alliance with Cuba in charging that Chávez is destabilizing the Western Hemisphere by meddling in other Latin American countries. For example, Diehl wrote (Washington Post, 6/06/05), "In his ever-closer bonding with Havana’s security and intelligence apparatus, his aggressive encouragement of the insurgencies in Bolivia and elsewhere, and his constant stoking of Latin anti-Americanism, the elected but increasingly authoritarian Venezuelan [president] is emerging as the natural successor to a fading Fidel Castro."

Diehl carelessly ignores the fact that no evidence of Chávez’s supposed meddling in Bolivia has ever been presented. When Roger Noriega, formerly the U.S. State Department’s top official on Latin America, suggested that Chávez was somehow responsible for the demonstrations in Bolivia that culminated in the resignation of the country’s president, even the stridently anti-Chávez Miami Herald (6/8/05) could find no proof for the charge. Herald reporter Jane Bussey wrote, "Bolivian government officials and Western diplomats in the region have told the Herald that while the allegations of Chávez’s financial aid to [then Bolivian opposition leader Evo] Morales are widespread, there’s been no hard evidence to support the charges."

Not even Bolivia’s ousted president, Carlos Mesa, was willing to support the claim of Venezuelan interference. "I did not have, while in office, intelligence information" about Venezuela’s alleged intervention in the Bolivian conflict, Mesa told Mexico City’s El Universal newspaper (6/13/05). Despite the lack of evidence of Chávez’s alleged intervention, an April 22 editorial in the Post stated that Chávez has promoted "populist turmoil" in Bolivia.

Aside from neglecting to provide proof for the charge that Chávez destabilizes Latin America, columnists failed to recognize the hypocrisy of accusing Venezuela of meddling in a region where U.S. interference is second to none. In reality, it is the Bush administration–not the Chávez government–that is known to meddle in the internal affairs of Latin American countries. During recent presidential races in Nicaragua (2001), Bolivia (2002) and El Salvador (2004), Bush administration officials openly threatened to penalize the three countries if their citizens elected candidates who opposed U.S. policies.

In addition, the U.S. government has blatantly interfered in the internal politics of Latin American countries by funding allied political organizations through the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the Office for Transition Initiatives (OTI), and by intervening militarily in the region via arms sales, the construction of U.S. military bases, and the sponsorship of massive counter-insurgency efforts in Colombia. Direct U.S. intervention in the region is hardly a distant memory, with the U.S. invading to overthrow the government of Panama as recently as 1989, and U.S. troops arriving to support an unelected government in Haiti in 2004.

Political uniformity

The U.S. press’ dismissal of the broad popular support enjoyed by the Chávez government, and that government’s success in bringing poor and working-class Venezuelans into the political process, makes it hard to argue that op-ed attacks on Chávez are motivated by a genuine concern for democracy. Instead, newspapers seem to be following the lead of the U.S. government, which has long divided countries into friends and foes less on the basis of political openness or popular legitimacy and more on the question of how subservient they are to U.S. economic interests.

In a rare commentary that took a sympathetic approach to the Chávez government, then Los Angeles Times columnist Robert Scheer (who was fired by the Times in December) summed up the hypocrisy of U.S. foreign policy (1/25/05):

“The fact is…that when totalitarian nations like China and Saudi Arabia play ball with U.S. business interests, we like them just fine. But when Venezuela’s freely elected president threatens powerful corporate interests, the Bush administration treats him as an enemy.”

As this review of op-ed coverage of Venezuela suggests, this double standard with respect to "democracy promotion" is constantly echoed in major U.S. media, which are economically tied to those same corporate interests. In grossly slanting their op-ed coverage against the Chávez government and in line with Bush administration policy, the press demonstrates a degree of political uniformity that any "would-be dictator" would surely envy.

Justin Delacour ([email protected]) is a freelance writer and doctoral student of political science at the University of New Mexico. He edits a blog, Latin America News Review, which can be viewed at