'One of the most visible, vocal and controversial leaders in Latin America' (according to the BBC), Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez receives much attention from the British media.
Frequent news reports, alluding to government 'attacks' on democracy and press freedom, and discussing the nationalisation of assets, create an impression of a 'regime' which asserts too much power. Problems such as crime and prison conditions in Venezuela are often highlighted, as though they emerged under the Chávez government. Limited to knowledge about Venezuela and Hugo Chávez provided by mainstream news, one might develop an impression of a previously stable society which has been turned upside down by this new leader.
An alternative to neoliberalism
News reporting on Venezuela is complicated by several issues. Firstly, in a time when neoliberal policies are internationally dominant, Venezuela's 'Bolivarian' reforms are in stark contrast to the economic norms which have been advancing in the US and the UK since the days of Thatcher and Reagan. As the original testing ground for neoliberal policies, many Latin American countries, such as Argentina and Bolivia, have in recent years turned increasingly towards socialist policies, resulting in strained relations with the US. Considering that the UK media takes a particularly empathetic view towards the US, Chávez is viewed as something of a rebel.
As a major oil producing country, Venezuelan leaders prior to Chávez remained obedient to the US, selling oil on western terms and allowing the IMF to shape the policy of the country. That Chávez has no longer allowed this control from abroad has predictably upset western governments, as well as the Venezuelan business class, which control 95% of the country's television media. So it follows that a strong anti-Chávez media campaign began shortly after his election. Today, faced with the ongoing majority support within Venezuela for the president, this campaign has been fine-tuned to adopt more subtle undertones. For example, attempts are, generally, no longer made to label Chávez as a 'dictator'. Rather, reporting on Chávez tends to give heavy attention to the views of the Venezuelan opposition (and those of the US government), often in a manner that cites them as a voice of reason.
The legacy of the opposition
While the opposition and the US government receive a great amount of media attention in the coverage of Venezuelan affairs, significantly less is granted to their actions in the pre-Chávez years; this lack of historical context results in the omission of important issues, including the nature of the opposition in Venezuela and the legacy of its previous governments. In the 1960s, then President Rómulo Betancourt, known as 'the father of Venezuelan democracy', had a 'shoot first and ask questions later' policy with regard to state violence towards left-wing activists. In 1989, under the government of Accion Democratica (Democratic Action), an unknown number of protesters and rioters (perhaps numbering thousands) were massacred by security forces during the Caracazo riots. Throughout the 1980s, massacres were relatively commonplace in Venezuela, and the opposition parties have hardly moved away from this disregard for life. In April 2002, during the coup attempt by opposition groups in Caracas, 19 people were killed and many more injured. Yet these appear no longer relevant for discussion. With elections underway in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is hardly mentioned without a caution of the outcomes if its Freedom and Justice Party comes to power. In contrast, when our media discusses Venezuela, concern is never raised about the Venezuelan opposition parties.
Exploiting Hugo Chávez's cancer
In 2011, it was announced that Hugo Chávez had contracted cancer, and rarely before has the world taken such interest in the health of a leader. Of all the articles on the BBC website concerning Venezuela during 2011, over one third focussed on the condition of Chávez's heath. On average, we were updated twice a week on the health of the Venezuelan president and the treatment he received. This interest was of course fuelled by speculation by the opposition parties that he would not be alive or well enough to stand for another term, and this was picked up by the world media. The BBC even went on to create a discussion speculating about who could succeed Chávez as president.
One of the sources invited by the BBC to provide a view on the future of Venezuela was Roger Noriega, described in the report as 'former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs under US President George W Bush, and currently at the conservative US think tank, American Enterprise Institute'. However this provides a very limited perspective on Noriega’s history. Noriega’s career is marked by hostility towards countries such as Haiti, Cuba and Venezuela; he himself has claimed that he was 'one of the architects' of a plan to destabilize Cuba in 2003.
Days before appearing as a BBC source, Noriega had written an article in the Miami Herald, entitled 'Venezuela without Chávez', in which he referred to Hugo Chávez as an 'ailing dictator'. More worryingly though, Noriega’s article was a call to arms for the Venezuelan opposition to take advantage of the illness, ending with:
If Venezuela’s democrats work in a unified way to present a practical, reasonable plan to people from all walks of life, they have a chance of winning a genuine transition to democracy. If they act urgently, they may even be able to convince slumbering policy makers in Washington to support a Caracas Spring over Chavismo without the charm. However, the hard work must begin in Venezuela, and it must begin now.
US support for Venezuelan opposition
The BBC happily maintains the illusion that US foreign policy is one of benevolence, while ignoring the history of US intervention, military and otherwise, in Latin America (in this case). For example, detailed evidence implicates the US government in the 2002 coup d'état attempt against Chávez, yet the BBC acknowledges only that the US has been 'accused' of involvement.
Eva Golinger, author of 'The Chávez Code: Cracking US Intervention in Venezuela', writes: 'Efforts to demonize, ridicule and even ignore the Venezuelan head of state have been employed by the US government and mass media over the past several years, creating a distorted perception amongst public opinion of Venezuela's reality.'
Golinger, has, since 2003, has been analyzing information released under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to reveal the US Government’s efforts to 'undermine progressive movements in Latin America'. Providing compliant assistance to this objective, 'international media portray the Venezuelan President as a "dictator" and the nation as a "failing state"'.
In 2012, the Obama Administration will support the Venezuelan opposition to the tune of $20m. The US also has a history of funding the opposition media in Venezuela. As Jeremy Bigwood writes, information released under the FOIA reveals that, 'between 2007 and 2009, the State Department's little-known Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour channelled at least $4 million to journalists in Bolivia, Guatemala, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, through the Pan American Development Foundation, a Washington-based grant maker.' Funds were allocated to 'buy off the best of Venezuela's news media and recruit young journalists'.
For any journalist interested in delving into the history, there is a wealth of information available about US involvement in its 'back yard'. As such, we might expect a dose of healthy scepticism from our media towards the US after decades of interference in Latin America. Yet, for example, when Barack Obama gave an interview to the conservative newspaper, El Universal, speaking of his concerns about the condition of Venezuela’s democracy, the media simply regurgitated his viewswithout question: 'US President Barack Obama has accused the government of Venezuela of threatening "basic democratic values"' read the BBC website. Rather than presenting us with factual information, unsubstantiated claims by Obama are taken at face value.