International Press Coverage Begins to Change Its Tune on Venezuela

With Chávez’ barely contested victory there has been a manifest change in the attitude of the mainstream international media towards Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution.

With Chávez’ barely contested victory in the long awaited referendum on his mandate as Venezuelan President, there has been a manifest change in the attitude of the mainstream media towards Venezuela’s Bolívarian revolution.  Venezuela’s left President has diverted a huge portion of this country’s oil wealth to social programs for the first time since oil was discovered in the early 20th century, though the distribution of oil wealth always held a prominent position in political discourse.  The relationship between Chávez and the international private media has been anything but friendly since he was first-elected in 1998.  Since then he has been re-elected once, his mandate reconfirmed in last Sunday’s referendum, and he has emerged successful from five other referenda and plebiscites on issues ranging from a new constitution to democratizing the labour movement.

Yet until recently, both foreign correspondents and, especially, the editorial writers of the major American and European newspapers remained in clear opposition to him despite everything.

Their position in the battle for Venezuela was clearly delineated during and after the short-lived coup in April 2002, reversed 48-hours later by massive popular mobilization.  Venezuela’s domestic media threw any pretence of objectivity to the wind and actively joined the ranks of coup-plotters leading up to the coup.  During the coup one journalist coyly admitted on one of the private television networks that the statement by members of the armed forces declaring to the populace that they were rebelling against Chávez was filmed in her house.

With the utter collapse of the two traditional parties in the wake of the Venezuelan peoples’ massive rejection of neoliberal structural-adjustment, the private media picked up the political torch.  They played, and continue to play, the role of political parties in opposition to Chávez’ coalition of almost entirely new parties.

During the coup foreign correspondents, like their editorializing brothers in Washington and New York, reported the facts as filtered by the pro-coup national media almost without exception.  And afterwards both were hesitant to admit fault, in many cases suggesting the coup might affect Venezuelan democracy positively by shaking Chávez out of his communistic reverie.

The Venezuelan government is itself partly to blame for this difficult relationship.  The Ministry of Communication does an impressively poor job of providing foreign journalists with the information they need to tell the facts as they are in Venezuela.  Thus, to do so these journalists would need to exhibit an independence and hunger for truth that is sadly lacking in most cases.

But more than anything the resistance of the foreign press to accept Chávez’ government, though consistently electorally supported by the majority of Venezuelans in almost every year of its existence can be seen as a reflection of the wariness of the international business community.  Here was a feisty former military officer talking openly about revolution and opposition to international capital.  He pushed through an ambitious land reform early in his term—one that actually stood a chance of resisting attempts by domestic and foreign commercial farmers to undermine it by making it impossible for peasant-farmers to sell their newly given land.

He cut a deal with Fidel trading cheap oil for Cuban doctors and teachers in order to provide universal, free and accessible health care and education to the 80% of Venezuela’s population living in poverty.  And he loudly criticized US foreign policy from the bombing of Afghanistan to the false pretence of the war in Iraq.

Yet as oil prices have continued to rise over the past few years, almost entirely due to the US’ irresponsible behaviour overseas, many in the international business community—and nowhere more than on Wall St.—have begun looking for stability.  And, loathe though they have been to admit it, that is what Chávez represents: a consistent supplier of oil who has only failed in his commitment to US markets as a result of an opposition oil-strike aimed at unseating him.

Though the international business community quietly backed the US when they supported both the 2002 coup and the 2003 oil-‘strike’ (led by white-collar workers and management), recently there has been a tangible change of mood.

In a press conference on Thursday August 12, Chávez quoted what appeared to be a consensus among risk analysts that “Chavez seems to be the only one who can maintain stability.”  “This London Chavist,” joked Chávez, “Nicholas Field, who manages $750 million of emerging-market debt, is well informed.”  The Lehman Brothers also received honourable mention, “and we’re not talking about Fidel Castro here,” clarified Chávez.  According to the Lehman Brothers “an increasing number of bond-holders have learned to trust the disposition of the Chávez government to pay its obligations…we don’t think that in the short term the situation will necessarily improve if Chávez is defeated.”

But the real test was in the wake of Chávez round victory on Sunday by a margin of 59% to 41%, which was answered almost immediately by the first decrease in oil prices in months.  And the foreign press quickly followed suit.  Thus, some of Chávez’ most dedicated critics at the Washington Post, the Associated Press—whose anti-Chávez news wires defined Venezuela coverage for many newspapers over the last 5 years—and the New York Times recognized the referendum results almost immediately, though the State Department has still proven reluctant to do so.

Perhaps this can be explained, at least in part, by this relatively recent confidance invested in Chávez by ‘well informed’ risk analysts like Nicholas Field and the Lehman Brothers.  But since the referendum results were released by Venezuela’s National Electoral Council at 4am Monday morning, and the Carter Center and OAS clear supportive declaration 10 hours later one thing has become excruciatingly clear in Venezuela’s surreal political realm: the opposition is imploding.

Despite completely unambiguous statements by both the Carter Center and the OAS saying that last Sunday’s referendum was free and fair and that they have absolutely no reason to doubt the results, the opposition has refused to recognize them.  In the form of the Democratic Coordinator—that fractious grouping of anti-chavists of all political stripes, though perhaps not of all colours—the opposition declared that there was fraud and charged international observers with an exhaustive recount.

But when the Carter Center, the OAS, and the electoral council all agreed to conduct such a recount, the opposition back-pedalled furiously, calling on all sectors of the population opposed to Chávez to refuse to participate in the recount.  Thus shooting themselves in the foot, the opposition has finally caused sympathizers in the international private media to give up.

“It is time for President Hugo Chávez’s opponents to stop pretending that they speak for most Venezuelans,” noted a Wednesday New York Times editorial.  “They do not, as the failure of a recall referendum, promoted by the opposition, decisively demonstrated on Sunday.”  Such harsh language directed against Venezuela’s opposition would have been difficult to find only last week in a paper that said of the April 2002 coup against Chávez “With yesterday’s resignation of President Hugo Chavez, Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator.”

The Times was joined this week by harsh calls by the US media for the opposition to recognize Chávez clear victory and move on.

How to explain this 180-degree turn in the position of the private media?  It appears that the opposition’s refusal to accept Chávez’ victory was the final straw.  Since the coup in 2002 Venezuela’s ‘Un-democratic Dis-coordinator’ as Chávez calls the opposition umbrella group, has consistently alienated those sectors of the populace who were most open to dialogue.  And it would appear that the mainstream media is more accountable to its readers than the opposition is to the Venezuela people.

Unable to present anything resembling a political program except their commitment to ridding the country of Chávez and his particular brand of ‘castro-communism’, unable to come up with viable leaders, the opposition has been steadily burying itself.

And yet program- and leader-less, the opposition was able to get 40% of Venezuelans—almost 4 million people—to vote against Chávez last Sunday.  Why isn’t this being heralded as a huge victory?  The opposition to Chávez—this massive segment of the population—will only continue to be worn away by the oppositions’ own incapable management of their political responsibilities.  “To have a viable opposition in this country,” joked Uruguayan journalist Aram Aharonian recently, “it would appear that Chávez will have to organize it himself. He could call it ‘Misión Oposición.’”

That is no joke to international capital, or to the private media; a responsible Venezuelan opposition may actually force the government to address some of the profound barriers to the Bolivarian revolution such as a tradition of rampant corruption from which they have so far been unable to extricate themselves.  And if such a responsible opposition emerges outside the guidance of the US or of the international capital that they represent, it may evolve into a critical opposition that is willing to work with Chávez.  Such an opposition could not only provide a potential alternative to this 40% sector of the population opposed to Chávez, it could also unify Venezuela behind the kind of critical cooperation between government and opposition that exists in many developed countries.  And a unified Venezuela would be a dangerous thing indeed.