In these two articles, News Unspun examines unbalanced reportage in the liberal British press on the Venezuelan presidential election.
Jim Armitage and the Skewed Reporting on the Venezuelan Elections
By Josh Watts – News Unspun
On Saturday 22 September, a little over two weeks before the upcoming Venezuelan presidential election of 7 October, Jim Armitage asked in The Independent: ‘A devil to the US, a folk hero in much of Venezuela, could Ken Livingstone’s (the former Labour mayor of London) old chum Hugo Chavez finally be on his way out?’ Apart from the title of the piece – ‘Ken Livingstone’s old chum Hugo Chavez faces a tough election’ – there is no further mention of Livingstone, and the reference appears merely provocative; an attempted smear of Chavez, by intimately linking him to a particular political figure.1 The mention serves as a good indication for what follows.
The timing of the piece is significant, and by examining its contents, we can gain an understanding of the all-too-familiar press hostility towards Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.2
Armitage does see positive sides to Chávez: ‘Despite the privations of many in his crime-riddled country and its human rights abuses, it’s hard not to feel a childish respect for the man who cocks a snook at Washington’. What the specific ‘human rights abuses’ to which he refers, are, it is not clear. One wonders if this respect – albeit ‘childish’ and thus insincere and possibly feigned to offer a whiff of balance – is brought on by knowledge of Washington’s influence and intervention in Latin American politics, traditionally caped in horror and bloodshed.3 Surely, anyone who so charismatically stands up to such challenges, as does Chávez, demands even childish respect? One commentator in Foreign Affairs even remarked how Bolivia’s Evo Morales had ‘gone eyeball to eyeball with Washington and lived to tell the tale’.4
Armitage points out that ‘Chavez has used Venezuela’s vast oil wealth to fund much-needed social programmes’. This fact is immediately followed by the observation that ‘Predictably, he’s turned on the taps in the election run-up to win over poorer voters’. What so bothers Armitage about this? Is it that, without managing to ‘fund much-needed social programmes’ with the country’s ‘vast oil wealth’, the president would not have a platform of success from which to attempt to ‘win over poorer voters’? Is it literally Chávez’s attempt to ‘win over poorer voters’ than irks Armitage? Surely, to attempt to ‘win over poorer voters’ by plainly ignoring ‘much-needed social programmes’ would be not only electoral suicide, but undeniably stupid, and Chávez – or any electoral candidate in a similar position – would be branded as such if they ignored the most obvious of enticements, in such a scenario. The papers are currently filled with reporting on the US presidential election, and specifically on how both Barrack Obama and Mitt Romney are attempting to appeal to particular demographics – such as ‘latinos’ – but when the ‘devil to the US’ and ‘folk hero’ to ‘much’ of his own constituency attempts likewise, he is viewed simply as ‘predictable’, with the adjective carrying an unexplained, though negative, connotation.
Whatever Chávez’s success in ‘us[ing] Venezuela’s vast oil wealth to fund much needed-social programmes’, it is undermined by his having ‘chased [investors] out of town’. In contrast, ‘The 41-year-old [Henrique] Capriles, a Catholic of Jewish ancestry’ – and from whom Chávez faces ‘tough opposition’ – ‘wants to woo back the investors’. Indeed, Capriles, who ‘styles himself as a modern democrat’, ‘argues the oil industry is hugely inefficient and should bring in far more money’. Note that Capriles’ charge is unchallenged, even though slight inquiry discards such a charge. As energy expert Michael T. Klare points out, one US company – Chevron – is to invest between $10 billion and $20 billion over the following decade. Meanwhile, ‘Several major Chinese companies have also sought to establish themselves in the Orinoco region [of Venezuela], with the enthusiastic support of the Chávez administration’ (as Klare describes it).5 Clearly, the developments put forward by Klare more than dispel Armitage’s assertion that investors were ‘chased out of town’ by Chávez.
‘If the elections do go his [Capriles’] way’, explains Armitage, ‘it will be a dramatic shift in the Latin American tectonic plates’, because ‘Venezuela would be jumping ship to the orthodox camp just as Argentina, led by fiery Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, heads further left’, which seemingly troubles Armitage. In noting that Capriles offers ‘tough opposition’, however, it is not pointed out that Chávez currently maintains a strong lead, according to polls.6
It should be asked at this point: what exactly is it that renders Chávez a ‘devil to the US’? Armitage declines to explain the label, though the answer to the labelling of ‘folk hero’ is somewhat clear – the result of ‘fund[ing] much-needed social programmes’. As Tariq Ali notes: ‘When the Bolivarians [Chávez and his administration] took power, the conditions in Venezuela were truly grim: two-fifths of the population lived in squalor, while one tenth shared half the country’s national income. . . . The Bolivarians improved the lives of millions of poor people by providing them with education and better health care’. Thus, what qualifies Chávez as a ‘devil to the US’ is the same thing qualified Cuba 53 years ago; why Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala, Salvador Allende in Chile, and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua – to name but a few – were subject of the ire of Washington, and its overwhelming military might. They offered an alternative to domination by US multinationals, providing land, healthcare, education, food, opportunity and hope, to millions the continent over, who had otherwise been subjected to, and exploited by, an economic system that offers a favourable investment climate to foreign corporations, putting immense profits into the pockets of said corporations and domestic elites, as opposed to aiding and supporting the suffering, struggling domestic populations, off whose backs the profits were reaped – otherwise known as the Washington Consensus. With regards to Venezuela, Ali comments, Chávez’s ‘policies were not designed to appease Washington or the Venezuelan elite. It was impossible that Chávez could make radical foreign policy changes but somehow remain loyal to the Washington Consensus on the domestic front’.7
Capriles, for the record, ‘styles himself as a modern democrat’ and ‘cites as his hero Brazil’s reformist former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’. It should be noted though that Lula praises Chávez’s policies. Thus in a statement to the Sãu Paulo Forum in Caracas, Lula stated that ‘The popular classes have never ever been treated with such respect, love and dignity’ as they have under the Bolivarians, having made ‘extraordinary gains’ and ‘conquests [which] must be preserved and strengthened’. ‘Your victory will be ours’, he told Chávez. ‘A strong embrace, a fraternal embrace and thanks comrade for everything you have done for Latin America’.8 In fact, that Capriles models himself after Lula amuses Lula’s former party.9 Meanwhile, according to Armitage ‘The region has been split between the orthodox Brazilian and Mexican economies and the more erratic and left-wing Argentina, Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia’. Given that these ‘left-wing’ economies have followed a path independent of Washington, we may deduce that they are ‘erratic’ because they do not adhere to the Washington Consensus.
Armitage rounds off his piece with a warning, painting ‘Chavez’s supporters’ in a menacing and threatening light. ‘If Capriles wins, it will only be by a narrow margin’, he explains. ‘Chavez’s supporters would contest the result. Expect trouble’. Armitage’s evidence of this appears to be a comment by ‘The pro-Chavez oil union . . . this week [in which they stated that] they will not let Capriles win: “We, the working class, will not allow it”’. ‘If that read like a threat’, he notes, ‘perhaps it was meant to’. Such strongly worded statements of support are obviously not uncommon in an electoral context. But why does it sound so threatening to Armitage? Does he have in mind greater and actually executed threats; for instance, the persistent refusal of the United States to permit progressive leaders in Latin America all throughout the 20th Century? (See note 3) Is he thinking of the US-backed coup in April 2002 which deposed Chávez, only for him to be reinstated after mass protests?10 Is it the response of Chávez’s supporters at that time, demanding the return of their overthrown, democratically-elected president, that renders them so troublesome? Furthermore, is it not at all possible that if Chávez wins, right-wing and business elements – including much of the Venezuelan media11 – will ‘contest the result’? Given the coup in Paraguay earlier in the year (exactly three years after the overthrow of the democratically-elected Manuel Zelaya in Honduras);12 a listing of potential post-election diplomatic, financial and military measures, made by former US ambassador to Venezuela (only a few weeks ago);13 and the aforementioned 2002 coup and consistent attempts to remove Chávez from office,14 there is undeniable hostility towards progressive, left-wing leaders – such as Chávez – within both Washington and domestic elites across the region. Therefore, is ‘trouble’ not to be expected more – or at least equally – from supporters of Capriles (if we are to adopt this distinction) as opposed to those who vote for Chávez? Alas, no such notions are considered.
Armitage’s article, then, continues a tradition of Chávez-‘bashing’ (see note 2), which becomes increasingly crucial as the Venezuelan election of 7 October approaches. How the press reports the election in the coming weeks (and on election day, and after) should be watched carefully. If the above is anything to go by, reports will continue to misrepresent Chávez, and the Bolivarian revolution, whilst largely (if not entirely) ignoring the meddling of foreign powers in Latin American politics, threatening ‘democracy in the region as a whole’,15 once more.
The Guardian Lacks Transparency As Writer’s Conflict of Interest is Undisclosed
By the News Unspun Editors Blog
On 27 September The Guardian published a Comment is Free article by Venezuelan writer Francisco Toro. Entitled ‘The Hugo Chavez cult is over’, the comment piece rails against the ‘mismanagement’ and ‘corruption’ of the Venezuelan government, while praising the ‘long-suffering opposition movement’ and commending the opposition leader, Henrique Capriles, an ‘energetic young state governor who has put pragmatism and problem solving at the centre of his campaign’.
The Guardian’s profile on Francisco Toro notes that he has covered Venezuela as a freelance correspondent for the New York Times until 2003. It fails to inform readers that Toro resigned from his position as NYT correspondent due to a conflict of interest arising from his membership of the ‘long-suffering opposition movement’ in Venezuela. Toro wrote in his resignation letter to the New York Times that, ‘Too much of my lifestyle is bound up with opposition activism at the moment, from participating in several NGOs, to organizing events and attending protest marches. But even if I gave all of that up, I don’t think I could muster the level of emotional detachment from the story that the New York Times demands’.
In 2003 Toro became the subject of a Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) ‘action alert’, concerning his coverage of Venezuela for the Financial Times following his resignation from the New York Times. FAIR wrote: ‘Toro is a fierce partisan in Venezuela’s heated political environment, a participant in anti-government protests who posts name-calling attacks on President Hugo Chavez on his website. He describes himself as a “Venezuelan journalist opposed to Hugo Chavez” (Mother Jones, 3/1/03), and has written frankly about what he perceives as his own inability to impartially report the news from Venezuela’. This concern about the inherent bias in the writings of a journalist who has made clear his inability to cover Venezuela with the necessary ’emotional detachment’ applies equally today.
The Guardian has a history of controversial reporting on Venezuela. (In July 2011, for example, The Guardian came under criticism from Noam Chomsky for what he called their ‘extreme dishonesty’ in the framing of an interview with the professor concerning Hugo Chavez.) It is of particular interest that in the run-up to the 7 October Venezuelan elections The Guardian should choose not to identify that they have provided a platform to a self-proclaimed opposition ‘activist’. In a case such as this, when a writer has openly acknowledged that his political interests will prevent him from writing with ‘detachment’, it is essential that readers are made aware of this partiality. The Guardian’s writer profiles provide sufficient opportunity for them to do so. In the interest of transparency The Guardian must fulfil this obligation.
1. In his book The Press and Political Dissent: A Question of Censorship (London: Pluto Press, 1986), Mark Hollingsworth demonstrates consistent attacks of Tony ‘Benn The Dictator (Daily Express, 28 May, 1981) and ‘Red’ Ken Livingstone, by the press. The tacit assumption drawn by Chávez being an ‘old chum’ of Livingstone, is stark, and the reason for its inclusion, therefore too obvious to explain.
2. See for example: Justin Delacour, ‘The Op-Ed Assassination of Hugo Chávez: Commentary on Venezuela parrots U.S. propaganda themes’, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), 2005,
Steve Rendall, ‘The Repeatedly Re-Elected Autocrat: Painting Chávez as a “would-be dictator”’, FAIR, 2006,
Editors, ‘13 Years of the BBC Reporting on Hugo Chavez’, News Unspun, 2012,
Editors, ‘Venezuela in the Media’ (two parts), News Unspun, 2012,
3. There are countless books on US intervention in Latin America. See for instance: Edward S. Herman, The Real Terror Network: Terrorism in Fact and Propaganda (Boston: South End Press, 1982) for graphic details of atrocities. See Noam Chomsky, Turning the Tide: U.S. Intervention in Central America and the Struggle for Peace (Boston: South End Press, 1985), for U.S. intervention in Central America, with ample historical context. See also the chapters on Latin America in William Blum, Killing Hope: US Military & CIA Interventions since World War II (London: Zed Books, 2003). Finally, see also Greg Grandin, Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism, c.2006 (New York: Holt Books, 2010).
4. Russell Crandall, ‘The Post-American Hemisphere: Power and Politics in an Autonomous Latin America’, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2011 (90:3) pp. 83-95.
5. Michael T. Klare, The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2012), pp. 110-13.
6. ‘One month before Venezuela’s Presidential election, polls show huge lead for Chávez’, Venezuela Solidarity Campaign, 2012,
7. Tariq Ali, Pirates of the Caribbean: Axis of Hope, c.2006 (London and New York: Verso, 2008), pp. 70-1.
8. Agencia Venezolana de Noticias, ‘Lula says to Chávez: “Your Victory Will be our Victory”’, Venezuela Analysis, 2012,
9. Agencia Venezolana de Noticias, ‘Brazil’s Labor Party Considers Venezuelan Opposition Candidate’s Self-Comparison with Lula “Funny”’, Venezuela Analysis, 2012,
10. For a detailed study of the coup, see Gregory Wilpert, ‘The 47-Hour Coup That Changed Everything’, Venezuela Analysis, 2012,
For media coverage and accompanying analysis, see Gregory Wilpert (ed.), Coup Against Chavez in Venezuela: The Best International Reports of What Really Happened in April 2002, PDF available at: http://venezuelanalysis.com/files/best_of_coup_coverage.pdf
For US involvement, see William Blum, ‘Was the CIA Behind the Chavez Coup/’, Counterpunch, 2002,
William Blum, ‘US Coup against Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, 2002’, KillingHope.org,
11. Eduardo Galeano, author of the renowned Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, comments on Chávez’s policies and the Venezuelan media’s treatment of the leader: Eduardo Galeano, ‘Nothingland-Or Venezuela?’, New Left Review, 2004,
See also, Tariq Ali, Pirates of the Caribbean: Axis of Hope, c.2006 (London and New York: Verso, 2008); and Dave Raby, ‘Is Chavez Next for the Aristide Treatment?’, Red Pepper, 2004,
12. See Francisco Dominquez, ‘A well-rehearsed coup’, Red Pepper, Aug/Sept 2012, Issue 185. Writes Dominquez: the coup ‘represents not just a setback for Paraguay but for democracy in the region as a whole’.
13. See ‘Political Unrest in Venezuela’, Contingency Planning Memorandum No. 16, Council on Foreign Relations, 2012,
14. See W. T. Whitney Jr., ‘A Slow Coup in Venezuela’, People’s World, 2009,
Dave Raby, ‘Is Chavez Next for the Aristide Treatment?’, Red Pepper, 2004,
15. Francisco Dominquez, ‘A well-rehearsed coup’, Red Pepper, Aug/Sept 2012, Issue 185.