Reality and Virtual Reality: Venezuela’s Bicentennial and the Corporate Media

Yesterday Venezuela celebrated 200 years since it became officially free from Spanish colonialism. A fairly momentous occasion, no doubt of great significance for people’s emancipatory struggles everywhere...Yet, according to Fox news, the BBC, the Washington post, and other equally scarcely illuminating news sources, Tuesday’s events were of little importance.

Coro, July 6th 2011 (Venezuelanalysis.com) – Yesterday Venezuela celebrated 200 years since it became officially free from Spanish colonialism. A fairly momentous occasion, no doubt of great significance for people’s emancipatory struggles everywhere. 

A progressive civic-military march made up of volunteers from the National Bolivarian Armed Forces (FANB), social activists, participants in the social missions, communal councils and indigenous groups took place at 10 am. Pictures showed files made up of all female soldiers, disabled citizens leading the march, soldiers dressed as Simón Bolivar and tens of thousands of spectators dressed in red.

According to the PSUV governor of the state of Bolivar, Francisco Rangel Goméz, the march represented a “new dynamic”, a deepening of the historical alliance between the people and the armed forces in Venezuela.

Representatives from all over Latin America, including Bolivian President Evo Morales and Paraguay’s Fernando Lugo were noticeably in attendance, marking the increasing integration and solidarity within the region. There were fireworks, a philharmonic concert performed by 1,500 members of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, and Chávez spoke of Venezuelans having “recaptured their independence” in the past ten years and of the need for national unity to defend Venezuelan sovereignty from “imperialism and its conspirators”.

Yet, according to Fox news, the BBC, the Washington post, and other equally scarcely illuminating news sources, Tuesday’s events were of little importance.

Venezuela’s bicentenary events only got a passing mention in most of the articles featured in these news sources – the writers obviously having decided to make way for the real story of the day – Chavez’s “absence”. The Venezuelan president, recently diagnosed with cancer, quite understandably spent the day inside the Miraflores Palace – mostly addressing the crowd through televised message, but tangibly present nonetheless.

The actual content of the articles was, as usual, pure postulation masquerading as fact. The speculations ranged from new ones; Chávez’s impending death, PSUV infighting, a power vacuum, who will “succeed” Chávez – to the regurgitation of the usual old ones; a devastated economy, sky-high inflation and the plague of constant power cuts. None of which were grounded in any factual evidence.

Instead of covering the bicentenary events, the Washington Post baselessly hypothesised that Venezuela’s military would “likely be a key player in the country’s political future if Hugo Chavez were to be forced out of the presidency by cancer”. Although constitutionally speaking, should Chavez’s health deteriorate, Vice-president Elias Jaua would take over until the 2012 elections – as in most democratic countries.

For those who did mention the celebrations, the representation was warped. Fox news somehow managed to transmogrify the civic-military parade into a Stalinesque show of force.

“The armed forces parade was exhibiting Venezuela’s military strength with armaments recently acquired from Russia and China. T-72 tanks and other armored vehicles were joined by mobile rocket-launchers as helicopters and Sukhoi fighter-bombers flew overhead”. The fact that the Venezuelan military are not armed with broom handles comes as a shock to us all.

That Chávez has repeatedly denounced Western aggression against Iraq, Afghanistan and now the shameful saga unfolding in Libya and has continuously maintained that you “cannot fight terror with terror” was obviously not at the forefront of the Fox writer’s mind.

Although given that the U.S. (who account for 48% of the world’s military expenditure) continues to sponsor and finance destabilisation campaigns against the Venezuelan government – most notably the 2002 attempted coup – perhaps having a military which is in fact armed is not such a crazy idea.

The BBC bafflingly concluded a brief round-up of the events and a section on there being “no obvious successor” to Chávez with the following; “While speculation about his health over the last few weeks has certainly distracted many within the country from some of Venezuela’s most pressing issues, those problems – such as the lack of electricity, high inflation and a sluggish economy – have not gone away.”

I wonder how the writer managed to arrive at this conclusion, given that the “sluggish” Venezuelan economy grew at an annualised rate of 9% in the first quarter of 2011 – with the private sector outpacing the public sector for the first time in 2 years. I urge the reporter not to look too closely at the UK’s economy – which grew by 0.5% in the first 3 months of 2011 and is threatened by a “double-dip” recession.

Furthermore, inflation – a historical problem in Venezuela related to having an economy reliant on the whims of the international petroleum market – appears to be decreasing. Often used as ammunition against the government, the international media neglects to mention that inflation reached historical highs of around 100% in 1996 during the neo-liberal government of Rafael Caldera.

Finally, and this list is by no means exhaustive, “Chávez retains grip on power”, was one of the headlines that the UK newspaper the Independent decided to run with. As if there weren’t an institutionalised party or movement behind the political transformations in Venezuela. It is hard to imagine a similar headline in the U.S.A – “Obama diagnosed with cancer but retains grip on power”. In blatant disregard for the actual facts, authoritarianism seems to be the most frequent charge levelled at Chávez and has been the driving force behind the “news” surrounding his illness and absence in Cuba. Without his iron grip – the whole process will most likely collapse!

The Western media likes to focus on the Bolivarian process as if it were just the crazy experimentations of a deranged dictator. One of those dictators who has been electorally ratified on numerous occasions and has approval ratings of over 60%. A dictator elected with much higher majorities than Obama or either coalition party in the UK. It doesn’t seem to matter that in the past decade Venezuela has been going through a profound and radical democratization process propelled from below, a process which challenges the power structures upon which the liberal democratic model is based. A process which creates a new power, systematically delegated to the people through communal councils and democratic worker-controlled factories with no managers in sight. Nor that voter registration and turnout has risen significantly. The international media continues to portray Chávez as an autocrat at the helm of a self-styled Bolivarian revolution regardless.

So, how is it that the international media could be so incredibly divorced from the reality of yesterday’s events? Maybe it’s that most mainstream media reporters simply forgot to ask most Venezuelans what they think, that it was more convenient for them to interview minority opposition politicians, constantly engaged in wishful thinking, but never actually supported by reality – or democratic elections. Maybe they just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and missed the tens of thousands of Venezuelans celebrating their independence, celebrating their revolution, dressed in red. Yes, maybe all the international journalists were just congregating in some giant tea party in a cave just outside of Caracas on Tuesday.

The latest round of exaggerations, and in some cases, downright lies, is not symptomatic of journalistic laziness, but further proof of the Western media’s increasingly poorly veiled agenda.

International media would much rather concentrate on Chávez, the “usually theatrical” Venezuelan president (Al Jazeera) as opposed to the socio-economic and political processes taking place in Venezuela, precisely because of what those processes represent. Equality, economic justice, popular political power, sovereignty – it is not so easy to discredit these concepts before a national readership who are losing their jobs, homes, health and education services to wildly unpopular and undemocratic austerity measures in the West. If Chávez disappoints by getting ill and making only a brief appearance, too bad, they’ll fill the pages with irrelevant, sheer speculation anyway. Perhaps if Venezuelans would just stop consistently making the wrong choice at the ballot box, the international media wouldn’t have to go to all that effort.

And effort it is. Just cast a glance over the transcript provided in the Guardian of the Rory Carroll, Noam Chomsky interview. The most illuminating aspect of the interview was not Chomsky’s responses, but the questions asked by Carroll – who painstakingly continues to ask the same question over and over again – regardless of the complexity of Chomsky’s answer – merely to get an incriminating sound bite criticising Chávez’s alleged authoritarianism. This is the problem – the international media reduces complex arguments and issues to convenient sound bites, sweeping statements which reinforce a particular view point and that can be consumed in record time. Such selective snippets can never truly educate or inform – but that is not the goal of today’s mainstream media.

Actually living in Venezuela forces you to confront the truth of the situation. The truth being that, without dismissing the importance of leadership within a movement, over the past decade a number of profound changes have been institutionalised up to a certain point in Venezuela – and they will not disappear quite as easily as the international press like to imply. The truth is that on hearing the news about Chavez’s health, far from being thrown into panic, Venezuela was quite calm, hopeful, almost defiant. The government functioned as normal. Venezuelans staged jubilant, televised events expressing their support for Chávez, wishing his speedy recovery. They vowed to keep fighting – but only when questioned, as if the mere insinuation that recent events meant the end for the revolution was too absurd to have even crossed their minds. I have to confess that I too had not realised that the dissolution of the Bolivarian process was on the cards. I obviously need to check the Fox news website more often.