A Bad Press for Venezuela’s Chávez

Chávez is no saint, but nor is he the evil monster depicted in most of the west's media.

As a former foreign correspondent for the Associated Press who spent eight years in Venezuela, one of the most arresting things to me about Hugo Chávez
is how the mass media generally depicts him as a buffoon, at best, or
some kind of brutal dictator and evil monster. When Chávez visited
London, for instance, one daily ran a front-page photo showing Chávez
seemingly giving a fascist salute.

Now Chávez is sure to give
more ammunition to his critics as he moves to eliminate limits on the
number of times he can run for president. A new vote on the proposal, already defeated as part of a national referendum a year ago, could come as early as February 2009.

Chávez's detractors
already are complaining that the nation has previously voted on the
issue, and that it is the latest move by the former paratrooper to
install himself as "president for life" a la Fidel Castro.

Chávez's supporters
argue that countries such as Britain and France have no limits on
re-electing their leaders, and that Chávez would have to run for office
every six years in legitimate elections. First elected in December
1998, Chávez is due to leave office in February 2012, ending 14 years
in power.

While Chávez's decision clearly underscores one of the
weaknesses of the Bolivarian Revolution – its one-man show aspect and
over-dependence on Chávez as its central figure – it's also important
to keep in mind some basic context as his detractors pull out their
arrows again. The bottom line, as I document in my new biography "HUGO!" is that until now Chávez has generally remained within the bounds of democracy.

is not massacring people or lining up opponents against a wall before a
firing squad. People can protest freely against him, and do so by the
hundreds of thousands as they take to the streets in mass demonstrations. Critics even go on television and call for coups
against Chávez, something unimaginable in the UK or the US, where such
an act would have the FBI or CIA knocking on the perpetrator's door in
about five minutes and land him in jail. In Venezuela, they go free.

country has real elections, certified by people such as Jimmy Carter.
When Chávez lost the referendum last year, and suffered other setbacks
in regional elections last month, he accepted the results. Sounds like kind of a strange dictatorship.

course, not everything is a wonderland in Venezuela. Chávez lost some
important races last month including in the capital Caracas because his
government, like any government, is flawed. While it has implemented
widely praised health and education programs in slums and generally
redirected the country's vast oil wealth to the poor majority for the
first time in Venezuela's history, it has also failed to crack down on
rampant crime and corruption and failed at mundane tasks such as
collecting the garbage.

Chávez may want to travel the globe
promoting Third World solidarity, but he better not forget to address
bread and butter issues back home. Still, the media would do well to
keep a little perspective and balance in mind when it covers Chávez,
and maybe drop the double standard for a bit. In neighbouring Colombia,
President Alvaro Uribe's government is awash in scandal
over its ties to right-wing paramilitary death squads that have
murdered scores of trade unionists, peasants, and others. US ally
Uribe, it can be argued, has blood on his hands. Not to mention that
his country is the world's number one producer of cocaine. There is no
evidence at all that Chávez has ties to paramilitary death squads. Yet
Chávez is the bad guy, Uribe is the good guy, and the Colombian
paramilitary story is hardly a major scandal in the press. Imagine if
it was Chávez with blood on his hands.

With Barack Obama about to
be sworn in as president, US policy may be shifting from the Bush
approach of trying to undermine or even overthrow Chávez to trying to
engage him as Bill Clinton's administration did. Obama has said
he may be willing to speak to leaders such as Chávez rather than simply
isolate them. For the media this might be a good time to employ a
little less hysteria – some would say demonisation – in its coverage of
Chávez, and a little more rational, balanced, fact-based analysis.
Chávez is no saint, but he might not be quite the evil monster so many
people picture today.