Speaking with Hugo! author Bart Jones

Bart Jones is the author of Hugo! The Hugo Chavez Story from Mud Hut to Perpetual Revolution. Jones lived in Venezuela from 1992 to 2000,
working initially as a Maryknoll lay missioner and then as a foreign
correspondent for The Associated Press. Daniel Denvir talks to him about the media, recent events, and his motivation for writing the book.

By Daniel Denvir - UpsideDownWorld.org
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Bart Jones is the author of Hugo! The Hugo Chavez Story from Mud Hut to Perpetual Revolution (Steerforth,
New Hampshire 2007). Jones lived in Venezuela from 1992 to 2000,
working initially as a Maryknoll lay missioner and then as a foreign
correspondent for The Associated Press. He now lives in Long Island,
New York with his wife and two children. The book has also just been
released in the UK and will soon be published in Brazil in Portuguese. 

You were an AP correspondent for six years. What's your take on Venezuela coverage in the U.S. media?

I
think the media has done a less than stellar job. They've done a
terrific job describing the opposition to Chavez, but less well
explaining why he also has significant support and has won so many
elections, which by the way are generally free and fair. They've also
helped manage to create a simplistic cartoon caricature of Chavez as an
evil monster and brutal dictator – for many one of the most hated
people on the planet today, as if he was some kind of Hitler. Yet in
his own country he is adored by millions of poor people. There is a
real dichotomy between how Chavez is viewed overseas and how he is
viewed by the majority in his own country. This internationalization
demonization is partly the doing of the media.

The
media has also demonstrated something of a double standard when it
comes to Chavez. For instance, in neighboring Colombia there is clear
evidence of ties between the government of President Alvaro Uribe and
right-wing paramilitary death squads. Uribe's foreign minister, his
campaign manager, a cousin who is a close political ally, and dozens of
congressional allies have resigned or been arrested for alleged ties to
these paramilitary death squads. Uribe himself was a friend of cocaine
kingpin Pablo Escobar, according to declassified U.S. documents. Yet
none of this is an issue in the U.S. for the general public, even
though Uribe is a major U.S. ally who is getting billions in U.S. aid.
Imagine if Chavez was in bed with paramilitary death squads. It would
be a huge story drilled into the public's mind.

Laptops
obtained by Colombia's government indicate Chavez has ties to the FARC
guerrillas, yet this has not been proven beyond doubt – despite heavy
media coverage.  The allegations, though, have served well in the
campaign to demonize Chavez.

Chavez
can and should be criticized for his government's shortcomings. But it
should also be put into context. The reality in Venezuela is that
Chavez is not massacring people or lining opponents up against walls
before firing squads. Thousands of people freely take to the streets to
protest against him. People even go on television and call him a
dictator or call for a coup. I don't think those things happen in Cuba
or North Korea. I think it is time for a little less hysteria about
Chavez and a more balanced and rational debate about what is happening
in Venezuela.  

Did
you see the story a few weeks back in the New York Times about the
power going out for a few hours in Caracas? I couldn't believe that
merited international coverage.

 
Blackouts
happened all the time under past administrations, but under Chavez
every misstep is reported. This is not to argue for giving him a free
ride, but at least for more fair and balanced coverage. That's what
Americans aren't getting from the media, a nuanced portrait. 

Not to ask you to speak ill of colleagues, but what is your take on New York Times coverage of Venezuela?

 
As
you know I lived in Venezuela for eight years, most of time as a
foreign correspondent for The Associated Press. I was in the belly of
beast when it came to studying the coverage of Chavez. It is fair to
say that the media has done a pretty poor job. I think many
correspondents despise Chavez and make it clear in their writing. I
know one who even had an anti-Chavez button hanging by her desk that
said, "Saquemos al loco" – "Let's get rid of the crazy one." 

Something
that I found really interesting was the part you wrote about what
neighborhoods U.S. journalists live in, who they grab drinks with,
where they send their kids to school...

Yes,
they often live in upscale neighborhoods, eat at posh restaurants. They
often hang out with the people who live in country club-like
neighborhoods, and send their kids to college in the U.S. and speak
perfect English. But it is also their job as journalists to roll up
their sleeves and go to these poor neighborhoods were Chavez is wildly
popular. Some who don't live in the country "parachute in" for a few
days, stay at five star hotels and spend their few days in the country
mainly speaking to wealthy opposition members and opposition-friendly
political analysts. They need to also make sure they get the other side
of the story. Too often they don't. 

Why did you decide to write a biography of Hugo Chavez?

Various
reasons. First, I lived in the country for eight years. I thought I'd
had a lot of good—and varied—experiences down there and got to see both
sides of the story. As a foreign correspondent for The Associated
Press, I was living in upper, or at least middle class, neighborhoods
where people despised Chavez. But when I first got there, I was a
member of the Maryknoll Catholic missionary organization. For 18 months
I lived in an impoverished barrio with dirt streets, no running water –
the kind of place most Venezuelans live in but where journalists don't
often tread. Some of my neighbors lived in mud huts like the one Hugo
Chavez grew up in.

I
thought that someone had to write a book about the guy telling his full
life story for the first time in an in-depth, compelling way, and that
I was qualified to do it. And I felt the media coverage left a lot to
be desired. Something more balanced, less hysterical was needed. Beyond
that, the guy's just got a great life story. It's straight out of
Hollywood. He was literally born in a mud hut, rose to the presidency
of his country and is sitting on top of one of the largest oil reserves
in the world. As a young man he got into the West Point of his country,
but mainly so he could get discovered by scouts in the capital because
he dreamed of becoming a major league baseball player. He then
discovered Simon Bolivar, and launched a ten-year secret conspiracy
ultimately to overthrow the government, which he tried to do in 1992.
He failed militarily but succeeded politically when he was allowed to
appear for seventy-two seconds on national television and instantly
became a hero to millions of poor people outraged by the gap between
rich and poor in Venezuela. He went to jail for two years, got out, ran
for president against a 6'1" blonde former Miss Universe — the contest
was dubbed the Beauty and the Beast — and won. His presidency has been
a similar rollercoaster of life-and-death action rides.

The
episode that really pushed me to write the book was the 2002 coup
against Chavez during which he was kidnapped and disappeared for two
days. The book was originally going to be titled "The President Is
Missing." Many people who have read the book tell me it reads like a
good novel – except it's all facts.

What's your take on the U.S. media's coverage of the revocation of RCTV's (a Venezuelan TV station) broadcast license?

I
think the US media coverage of that issue was similar to most coverage
related to Chavez. You heard one side of the story and rarely got the
other. Again, the other side is that this TV station actively conspired
in a coup against a democratically elected president. If CBS, NBC or
ABC did that in the U.S. against Bush they would be pulled off the air
in five minutes and the owners would go to jail. In Venezuela, this
station was allowed to operate for five years more and then, when the
reauthorization came up for the privilege of using public airwaves, the
government declined to approve it. They weren't even completely shut
down, they were allowed to continue on cable. It's always alarming when
a media outlet is closed, but the circumstances were a little more
complex than the mass media generally reported.

What
about coverage of the 2007 constitutional referendum that, among other
things, would have allowed Venezuelan presidents to be indefinitely
reelected? 

The
media certainly focused on the negatives and the downside. But you have
to point out that in ways they were right on this one. The New York
Times ran a front-page story saying that some Chavez supporters had
doubts about the reforms, and that turned out to be accurate. But it
should be mentioned that there is a double standard with Uribe next
door, who like Chavez is also asking for indefinite reelection. Yet
there's no uproar about it.

The
referendum did show that Chavez had become a little out of touch. He
and his advisers thought they were going to win perhaps by a 60-40
spread – and instead they lost narrowly. It was a real turning point, a
real wake up call. People want concrete problems addressed: street
crime, corruption, food shortages. A little less touring the planet to
promote a global Bolivarian Revolution. It will be critical whether
Chavez listens and adjusts or not. If not, he will run into some
problems. 

You
focus far more on Chavez than on Venezuelan social movements—barrio
organizations, campesino groups, unions, etc.—does that play into the
US media's thinking that Chavez is imposing a personal project on an
unwilling population?

Well,
it is a biography. I'm focusing on Chavez and telling his life story.
But the book does talk to a degree about the social movements,
especially about Chavez's ties to social movements and the civilian
Left in the years he was plotting his coup. I also dedicated a full
chapter to the Caracazo uprising in 1989. Perhaps it was not organized
or premeditated, but it was poor people rising up against the IMF
neoliberal economic shock programs. Chavez didn't happen in a vacuum.
If it wasn't Chavez, it would have been someone else rising to power
vowing to destroy the status quo. Venezuela was running on an
unsustainable system.

Why do you think stories about Chavez's break with his wife are so appealing to the US media?

Well
again, it plays into the angle of Chavez the bad guy -- one more effort
to demonize him. It may be a story to a certain degree, but as with
anything that goes wrong with Chavez, the media wants to jump all over
it. What you didn't see much of was Chavez's version of events. In
reality, his ex-wife is quite mercurial herself and quite a problematic
figure in her own right.

What do you think are the most underreported successes of the Bolivarian Revolution?

The
biggest successes that you do not hear about as much in the media are
the health and education programs. The government has stationed
thousands of Cuban doctors in poor neighborhoods to provide
preventative health care services. That is really revolutionary for
people. Most Venezuelan doctors wouldn't even set foot in these
neighborhoods, much less move in and provide 24-hour services. There
has been some reporting on this, but ask your average American about it
and they won't know. But they can talk all about Chavez's alleged
support for terrorists and his alleged dictatorship.

Some 1.5 million illiterates have been taught to read and write in Venezuela. It's hard to argue that's a negative thing.

And the Revolution's biggest obstacles?

They
haven't done enough on corruption or crime and it really is too much of
a one-man show focused on Chavez. Many people, including supporters,
believe that if he left tomorrow the whole thing might collapse. On the
other hand, there has been a huge mobilization of the poor. Take a look
at the grassroots participatory democracy going on with the communal
councils, for instance. 

What role is policy towards Venezuela playing in the current US presidential elections? 

It
seems like the candidates are generally on the same page when it comes
to Chavez. They've all bought into this image of him as an evil
monster. He's a great verbal punching bag for candidates on both sides
of the aisle. McCain called him a dictator recently. 

What effect will the election results have on Venezuela? Will an Obama presidency signal a big policy shift?

Last
April when I interviewed Chavez for the book twice over a two-day
period, in the presidential jet, in the palace, etc., he told me he was
watching the elections here closely. We just want someone who will talk
to us to win, he said. We can't even talk to the U.S. administration
right now. Obama has made some statements indicating that he's bought
into the whole demonization, but has made other statements signaling he
might actually sit down and talk. But I don't think we'd see any change
with McCain, or Clinton either. It really points to the question of
whether it's in the U.S. interest to be at war with this guy sitting on
top of all this oil. The candidates need to get a more accurate picture
of what is really happening in Venezuela. We saw what happened when the
U.S. public did not get accurate information from its government and
its media about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
 
Daniel
Denvir is an independent journalist in Quito, Ecuador and an editor at
the forthcoming journal Caterwaul Quarterly
(www.caterwaulquarterly.com). Denvir is a 2008 recipient of NACLA's
Samuel Chavkin Investigative Journalism Grant.