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Opinion and Analysis: Media Watch | Politics

Victory in Venezuela: Chavez, Progress and Media Coverage

Hugo Chavez has won again. The current referendum effectively ending presidential term limits passed with over 54% of the vote. It represents a larger margin than that gained by Barack Obama when he defeated John McCain in the U.S. presidential elections. That was just under 53%. It is also the sixth democratic election or referendum Chavez has won, including his re-election victory after an attempted U.S. backed coup in 2002 (1). And that was with over 700 international election monitors present, including, representatives from the Carter Center (2). So the question is why is Hugo Chavez portrayed in the western media as such a threat?

On the surface, the answer is simple. Chavez is in a unique position as the democratically elected populist president of 6th largest country in Latin America (and the first in regards to natural resources), to reject the neo-liberal policies of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, the World Trade Organization (WTO), and the U.S. Treasury department and he has the financial ability to do so. This makes him extremely unpopular with the Washington Consensus and the global interests that they advance (3).

This alone is not enough. The average citizen in the Western world has no idea how the IMF works, who the World Bank is, or what the U.S. Treasury department actually does. If they are lucky enough to have a Union job they may have a vague idea of what the World Trade Organization is about. (Mostly regarding the relocation of their jobs overseas.)

Hugo Chavez is unpopular because the media portrays him as either, a) a charismatic demagogue, or b) a would-be dictator. Rarely is he portrayed as a popularly elected leader and social reformer despite the overwhelming evidence in support of that conclusion (4). This is because newspaper editors generally defer to stories which support and protect U.S. interests (5).

The one area that critics of the Chavez regime continue to stress is the supposed lack of free speech in Venezuela. The reports by the New York Times, the Washington Post, the BBC, and others, which suggest that freedom of the press is curtailed, are simply not true. This erroneous perception is based on the refusal to renew the operating permit of the Venezuelan news outlet, Radio Caracas Television. This is the same news outlet that has been linked to the failed 2002 coup against Chavez (6). Of the eleven television stations currently operating in Venezuela, seven are private corporations and "none maintain pro-Chavez stances" (7). Of the more than 20 daily newspapers in Caracas, at least half are critical against Chavez and his administration.

To say that the media has an agenda of its own is self evident. To claim that the media in the United States (and the Western world in general) has a specific agenda to promote the socio- economic interests of western democracy and globalization is not. Yet a not-so-subtle example of the power of the media to serve those interests (often the unelected officials of the WTO, IMF, World Bank, and the US Treasury Department) can be found in the rejection by the media to show anything remotely accurate about the real conditions in Venezuela or when it does do so, it dismisses anything positive as propaganda. Instead, all that is focused on is the nationalization of the oil business. Pushed aside are the real social reforms that have come about as a result of this nationalization.

For instance, the program that brought 14,000 Cuban doctors who in turn established 11,000 neighborhood clinics in some of the poorest districts in Venezuela has largely gone unnoticed in the Western media. The same oversight applies to the literacy programs that have taught over a million adults how to read and write throughout the country. Where are the stories on the new schools and universities that have been built, most in the poorest districts (8)? Where are the positive reports on the offer to sell discounted fuel for heating after the oil shortages during Hurricane Katrina?

So why does supposed unbiased, hard news media outlets such as the New York Times, constantly choose to uphold the erroneous image of who Hugo Chavez is and what he has accomplished? Well, it sells papers, but that's not really enough. He is openly anti-American. But what exactly does that mean? He doesn't like American foreign policy and the naked self-interests that it protects. But is the media really that patriotic? Doubtful.

There are many reasons that Latin America needs Hugo Chavez. The most obvious, is that he serves as a lightning rod for media criticism and world perception, allowing other leaders such as Rafael Correa, Evo Morales, and Lula da Silva, to weather the storm of the Washington Consensus and implement social change and reform in their own countries.

Another, perhaps a more esoteric reason is that the world needs competing ideologies, a system of checks and balances, especially in a region that has long been dominated by foreign interests and interference from the Monroe Doctrine to the neo-liberal policies of globalization.

The battle ground between the United States and Venezuela is being waged in the media. How the media chooses to respond will go a long way towards reestablishing the validity of journalism in the west.



(1) Pirates of the Caribbean by Tariq Ali



(4) Revolution! By Nikolas Kozloff




(8) Pirates of the Caribbean by Tariq Ali