“Venezuela Elections 'Free, But Not Fair'”, was Germany’s Spiegel Online headline on a piece about Venezuela's October 7 presidential poll, won by socialist President Hugo Chavez by more than 55% of the vote. “Chavismo wins, Venezuela loses”, was The Wall Street Journal's take.
Compared with such headlines, the Sydney Morning Herald’s reprint of a New York Times article “Socialist Chavez hangs onto Power in Venezuela” by William Neuman might seem a reasonably balanced report. It is not.
Note that politicians in Australia or the US get re-elected, but if you’re a socialist in Latin America you “hold onto power”.
Then there is the article’s very first clause, where we learn that Chavez is a “fiery foe of Washington”. Although no doubt a badge of honour for many, this language still paints Chavez as impassioned rather than considered.
This, along with the article’s other main Chavez descriptor of “polarising”, conveys an image of him being unreasonably confrontational and divisive in a way that the also accurate “a democratic leader who has withstood Washington orchestrated violence and sabotage” does not.
And then there is the assumption that the first thing to mention in an article about a Venezuelan election is Washington. The pitfalls of your reportage coming from the New York Times perhaps.
The article does convey a sense of joy on the street following Chavez’s re-election, but it’s always “his ... revolution”, “his version of socialism”.
That a large section of the population feel some kind of ownership over the process of social transformation in Venezuela is never acknowledged. The Venezuelan people have agency in Neuman’s writing only if they’re part of the opposition.
Moreover, in selecting quotes and comments about Chavez “reigning forever”, “guns being fired into the air” and Chavez being a “former soldier”, some sense of violence and dictatorship is still conveyed. This comes straight after Chavez and his supporters once again peacefully won what in any other Western country would be referred to as a landslide electoral victory.
By contrast, we are informed of the opposition’s “democratic temperament” via the one full quote the re-elected president is afforded in the article.
What about a quote interpreting the election result and the future for Venezuela? Well there is one, just not from Chavez. It’s from Henrique Capriles, the opposition candidate who was resoundingly defeated.
After the election, we’re told Chavez is “ailing and politically weakened”, despite being re-elected for a fourth presidential term by 11 percentage points and holding a majority in the National Assembly.
It is said the opposition “raised the possibility that an upset victory was within reach”. To what extent the opposition relied on reprints of biased NYT articles about Venezuela to raise this sense of “possibility” is difficult to quantify.
Chavez, we’re told, will now move forward “even more aggressively ... although his pledges were short on specifics”. For Neuman, the specifics detailed in the million or so copies of the 39-page plan for deepening popular participation and human-centred development over the next six years that were distributed for mass discussion, amendment and ratification by the Venezuelan National Assembly early next year do not count.
And how specific was the opposition’s plan? Capriles' pledge to maintain the Chavez government’s social programs ― the same ones the opposition have violently opposed for a decade, but now pledge to improve.
We are informed, as always, that Chavez’s “health is a question mark”. Maybe he is going to die soon! And maybe the mainstream media will start showing some human decency and ease up on the celebrations when an elected leader gets cancer, but I would not hold my breath for either.
“Facing pressure from Mr Capriles,” Neuman says, “[Chavez] pledged to ... pay more attention to the quality of government programs such as education.”
In reality, the popularity of the government's social programs is such that Capriles had to publicly say the opposition was in favour of them, but leaked opposition documents revealed his plan to dismantle them.
Capriles had to pitch himself as a leftist and the opposition was forced to accept the election results due to the painstaking efforts to institute a transparent electoral system with unprecedented international supervision. But we are told it was Capriles who pressured Chavez.
And better still, the same opposition that denigrated the literacy and other mass education campaigns of the past decade is said to have forced the government “to pay attention to quality education”.
We are told Chavez spent much of the year insulting “Capriles and his followers” as “squalid good-for-nothings, little Yankees and fascists”. Left out is the opposition’s regular jibes about Chavez’s African facial features, his “common” way of speaking or his hilarious cancer-induced baldness.
And anyway, was it really the “Yankee and fascist” credentials of the opposition (that is, organising a fascist coup and getting funding from Washington) that “represented nearly half the electorate” as Neuman claimed? Or did those that voted for Capriles do so for a range of other reasons, not least among them that the private media sold him as a progressive left-wing candidate?
At any rate, Chavez’s insults, we’re told, “seemed to lose their sting” as the campaign went on (he can’t even insult effectively!) under the weight of the opposition’s growing “momentum”. The Chavez campaign filling Caracas’s seven major avenues with almost certainly the largest demonstration in Venezuela’s history three days before the vote clearly does not constitute momentum worth mentioning for Neuman.
Through selection of evidence, bias language, omission, and unsubstantiated claims, Neuman paints a false picture ― and this is an article that, by comparison with other Western media coverage, is relatively generous towards the Bolivarian process that has halved poverty in Venezuela.
Serious journalism regarding Venezuela requires covering the significant social achievements of the revolution and an informed discussion of its many shortcomings. Unfortunately, if Neuman’s article is anything to go by, the liberal corporate media will not provide you with either.