The Los Angeles Times editorial page has taken a surprisingly large amount of interest in Venezuela during the Hugo Chavez presidency. A full twenty-eight editorials dedicated to President Chavez have been published since 1998.
With only one exception, every piece has been overwhelmingly negative. The Times has exhausted just about every unfavorable term to describe a political leader when referring to President Chavez. Although “caudillo” and “strongman” are the most common, the adjectival forms of the word “dictator” in reference to Chavez appeared as early as his first candidacy in 1998.
It is interesting to note that the tone of the anti-Chavez coverage changed immediately after the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. Whereas in the Summer of 2000, Chavez was presented through a Cold War lens (“If there is anything positive in this turn of events it is that no powerful nations are seeking to bankroll the Venezuelan strongman as the Soviet Union did Cuba's Castro for so many dangerous years”) to a War on Terror lens in November 2001 (“Everyone is free to express his opinions and choose his friends. But at a moment when President Bush has said that nations are either with the anti-Al Qaeda coalition or with the terrorists, the Venezuelan president's choices are particularly unfortunate”).
Times editors seemed to be taking a more balanced approach after the recall referendum when they urged opposition leaders to stop acting “irresponsibly” and accept their loss. But that was the last time anything positive was published about Chavez. In the six Chavez-themed editorials since August, 2004, the Times has challenged virtually every major policy from Caracas, alternating between mocking and warning tones.
Coverage of the Early Chavez presidency: 1998-2000
On December 4, 1998, just days before the Venezuelan elections that first swept President Chavez into office, a Los Angeles Times Editorial referred to him as “a populist and dangerous demagogue who holds a substantial lead in the polls,” and advocated that Venezuelans vote for Carabobo governor Henrique Salas.
By April 1999, just 3 months after Chavez’s inauguration, the Times editorial page was already referring to the new President as “a classic Latin caudillo,” fretting over his supposed “dictatorial methods” in calling for a Constitutional assembly.
But as the popularity of the Constitutional process throughout Venezuela became apparent, the Times editorial page rewrote their opinion of the assembly. By in a September, 1999 piece titled “Venezuelan Democracy Quivers,” the Times writes that Chavez “got off to a promising start as president by having an elected assembly rewrite the country's 1961 constitution,” but by now the editorial page had a new list of complaints. The fact that the president proposed a “$950-million program to open new schools, rebuild old ones and repair decrepit hospitals,” is portrayed as a cynical attempt to “augment[..] his populist message.” The editorial concludes that “[t]he jury is still out on whether Chavez is a skillful political manipulator…” or “a misunderstood leader,” yet anyone reading the editorial headline or first three paragraphs understands that the Times has already made the case for the former.
After the new Constitution was approved by popular referendum, Chavez, as well as all members of the Legislative branch went back before the electorate in a special election. The day of the July 30, 2000 vote, a Times editorial [“Venezuela’s Errant Ride”] blames Chavez for Venezuela’s economic recession, which had begun a decade earlier. Recognizing Chavez’s widespread popularity and his imminent electoral victory, the Times attributes his success to simply “charisma and bluster” and expresses relief that “no powerful nations are seeking to bankroll the Venezuelan strongman as the Soviet Union did Cuba's Castro for so many dangerous years.”
In November 2001, just two months after the terrorist attacks on the United States, the Los Angeles Times was already pioneering the use of the terrorist label against those who don’t toe the U.S. line. In an Editorial titled “Venezuela’s Bad Choices,” the Times laments Venezuela’s opposition to the Free Trade Area of the Americas and President Chavez’ criticism of the U.S. bombing campaign in Afghanistan. The Times ominously concludes, “Everyone is free to express his opinions and choose his friends. But at a moment when President Bush has said that nations are either with the anti-Al Qaeda coalition or with the terrorists, the Venezuelan president's choices are particularly unfortunate.”
The April 2002 Coup
In the aftermath of the unsuccessful two-day coup against president Chavez, the Times ran two editorials—the first an un-bylined piece published April 17th, titled “Venezuela’s Strange Days,” and a second piece, signed by Times Associate Editor Frank del Olmo titled “Standing Up to a Coup--and to Tio Sam.” Both pieces were rightfully critical of the U.S. response to the coup, yet both also took the opportunity to bring Chavez down a peg. “Strange Days” opens with the sentence “It goes against the grain to put the name Hugo Chavez and the word "democracy" in the same sentence,” and spends a good portion of the space listing past sins of the Chavez administration to explain why the Times stance in favor of the restoration of the President is reluctant. Worse, the editorial publishes the charge that the coup was launched when “Chavez supporters opened fire on anti-Chavez demonstrators,” an opposition-supported storyline that has since been discredited.
Similarly, the del Olmo piece commends the reaction of other Latin American governments to the coup, and criticizes the U.S. approach, but took pains to downplay still-uninvestigated charges of U.S. involvement in the military takeover as “conspiracy theories.” Del Olmo makes the point that State Department officials were merely distracted by events in the Middle East and therefore did not react strongly. Today we know that the U.S. was actively lobbying other Latin American governments to support the Carmona regime, and that thousands of U.S. dollars had been funneled to groups that supported the coup in the months before the action.
The 2002-2003 Oil Strike
By late 2002, opposition leaders had embarked on a new campaign to force President Chavez’ ouster. A worker lockout from the oil industry was underway, and Venezuela’s economy was seriously damaged. Leaders of the “strike”--primarily oil company executives--were threatening to continue the economic shutdown until the President resigned.
In November, 2002, as the lockout got underway, the Times published an editorial, “Hope for Venezuela Rescue,” lamenting the state of the Venezuelan economy, and blaming “fear of government incompetence and mistrust of its intentions,” rather than opposition sabotage. The Times states that the only way out of the situation is a recall referendum against President Chavez. While the Venezuelan Constitution allows for such a recall once the president reaches the mid-point of his term, the Times argument paralleled the opposition position at the time that the country violate the Constitution and hold a referendum early in order to quell the unrest fomented by the strike.
Criticism of Media
The vast majority of independent newspapers and television outlets in Venezuela remain very vocal in their opposition to the President, and international human rights groups have criticized the irresponsible role of the media in the coup, the Times does not mention this in a series of editorials that inaccurately accuse the government of restricting a free press.
The first Times editorial on the subject, “Attack on Venezuela Media,” was published on July 19, 2003. Ostensibly, the piece was intended to criticize a government study of media outlets to determine if some of the most extreme language violated existing Venezuelan law prohibiting “false, deceitful or tendentious news.” But the piece went even further, making unsubstantiated allegations of “Chavez and his cronies” promoting “the bad old practices of getting government-sponsored mobs to beat journalists in the streets or throw rocks through their office windows.” The editorial makes no mention of pre-Chavez Venezuela, where government censors took over newspaper offices and redacted anti-Government messages. Two additional editorials on the Chavez and the media have taken a similar tone.
As noted above, the Times first began pushing for a recall referendum in November 2002. It renewed its call in September of 2003, arguing that there “doesn’t seem to be much choice” in the matter. For the first time, however, the Times recognizes that “the leader must serve more than half his six-year term before opponents can try to oust him.”
By March 2003, the Times was taking the opposition line that federal elections authorities—a separate branch of government from the President’s office—should accept a number of questionable signatures pushing for a recall referendum, even though elections officials wanted time to investigate possible widespread forgery. In this piece, titled “The Unpopular Populist,” the Times makes an aside that again changes its opinion about the earlier referendum process that updated the Venezuelan Constitution, claiming that the President merely “manipulated the constitution to amass enormous personal power.”
The Times published two more additional editorials in the runup to the referendum, each eager to criticize the President and support the opposition movements.
To its credit, the Times wrote perhaps its most balanced piece just days after the referendum, which President Chavez won with 59% of the vote. The Times called the opposition efforts to reject the outcome “irresponsible,” and encouraged them to rejoin the democratic process.
Since reasonable referendum article was published, the Times has written negatively on just about every topic promoted by President Chavez. Here are a few examples.
* Just four months after the recall referendum, the Times published its most extreme anti-Chavez editorial to date. “A Little Fidel in Caracas,” from December 18, 2004, accuses Chavez “and his cronies” of “converting Venezuela's nascent democracy into a dictatorship.” It argues that the newly passed Law of Responsibility on Radio and Television is a plot to interfere with independent newscasts. “Ostensibly, the law is intended to protect children; in reality, it will allow the government to fine and close down any station it finds objectionable.” Actually the law itself specifically exempts newscasts from its restrictions.
* One month later, another piece was published, titled “Nonsense from Hugo Chavez,” which supported Colombian security forces coming onto Venezuelan soil to kidnap a fugitive without warning or collaborating Venezuelan forces. The Times called Chavez’ call for an apology from Colombia “amusing.”
* When Venezuela took part in a multi-country effort to launch a TV network—the first Latin American news network to be based in Latin America, the Times editorial page took the opportunity to ridicule the project in an editorial titled “All Chavez All the Time.”
* While the rest of the world criticized Pat Robertson’s call for Chavez’ assassination, the Times editorial page used the opportunity to jibe Chavez once more. An August 24, 2005 editorial begins “A paranoid is never happier than when he discovers that he really does have enemies. So Pat Robertson's call for the assassination of Hugo Chavez may be just the moment of vindication the Venezuelan president has been waiting for.”
* In September, 2005, the Times took on land-reform efforts in Venezuela, labeling the democratically-debated process contrary to the rule of law and speculating, without any motivation that the nations banks may soon be expropriated.
Eric Wingerter is the Public Education Director for the Venezuela Information Office (VIO). The Venezuela Information Office is dedicated to informing the American public about contemporary Venezuela, and receives its funding from the government of Venezuela. More information is available from the FARA office of the Department of Justice in Washington DC.