As Hugo Chávez receives further cancer treatment in Cuba, this time seemingly with much higher stakes than before, the UK media has again shown where its interests lie when it comes to reporting on left-wing Latin American governments. The attack has come in many forms, from portraying once again the country as militaristic, to demonising Nicolas Maduro, the vice-president of Venezuela, who will stand for election in the event that Hugo Chávez cannot continue as president.
One of the more abrasive articles, given the timing, has been written by Jonathan Watts at The Guardian, in which he explores how 'Hugo Chávez's battle with cancer has been a political weapon for both sides'. It is very hard to imagine the UK press discussing the health of a head of state being used as a 'political weapon' if it were for example the president of the United States. In the spirit of Watts' predecessor Rory Carroll, The Guardian’s former Latin American Correspondent, the sub-headline referred to Hugo Chavez as 'El Comandante'’: 'The Venezuelan opposition are likely as the government to use fears over El Comandante's mortality to its advantage'. Note also that this sentence assumes a likelihood that the government will use these fears to its advantage, but suggests surprise at the idea that the opposition would do such a thing.
Watts goes on to blame Chavez himself for any use the opposition might have made of this ‘political weapon’, as he didn’t his personal medical records, stating that ‘the government failed to quash the rumours as it could have done by releasing Chávez's medical records’. Then, entirely at odds with this previous statement, he cites ‘critics’ who say ‘Chávez and his aides have drip-fed occasional details to capitalise on their impact’. These two statements surely contradict each other, but their commonality is that they lay the blame with Hugo Chavez and the Venezuelan government either way.
More recently at The Guardian, a republished Associated Press (AP) report appeared following an interview Obama gave about Hugo Chavez in Miami. ‘The most important thing is to remember that the future of Venezuela should be in the hands of the Venezuelan people’, said President Barack Obama, before clarifying his position through comments that concur with US policy for the last ten years: ‘we've seen from Chávez in the past authoritarian policies, suppression of dissent’. Armed here with the crucial keyword, The Guardian editors crafted the headline ‘Venezuela hits out at Barack Obama's remarks on 'authoritarian' Hugo Chávez’. We should note that Obama (or any US official) saying such things is not in the slightest surprising; it is worth remembering that this time last year the US president appeared to have the exact same concern for the people of Venezuela, speaking critically about the Venezuelan government and voicing his concern for the freedom of the press in an interview with the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal. What we might expect from journalists is perhaps a bit more questioning of why Obama so loosely says such things about Venezuela, yet hardly at all about countries with which the US has strong ties.
Though there are reports from Venezuela that vigils are being held all over the country in solidarity with the President during his treatment and recovery, the BBC and Guardian have focussed on one vigil which fits their narrative perfectly – a military vigil. The Guardian used an image of the military vigil to accompany their above-mentioned ‘authoritarian’ headline, while theBBC reported that the vigil ‘was seen as a demonstration of the strong support Chavez has within the country’s military’; note that we rarely hear about the ‘strong support’ for Chavez from the Venezuelan people (unless we are told that they are ‘the poor’); this would raise questions about assumptions frequently seen in the remainder of the reporting. ‘Strong support’ from the military though, is acceptable for the UK media.
In terms of a successor to Chavez, it’s not clear from the media that the next president will not simply be appointed by the incumbent leader. This is very simply not the case because the country functions as a democracy with a constitution that has provisions for eventualities in which the president cannot finish his term. There is of course Chavez’s vice-president, who would temporarily fill his shoes, and there is an endorsement of the vice-President from Chavez to his supporters, but this is no different to what would happen in any country with similar democratic processes in this case. It is worth briefly noting and discussing the ending remarks from The Guardian’s AP report on ‘authoritarian’ Chavez:
There are parallels with the situation in Cuba too, where Chávez's close friend and mentor, Fidel Castro, suffered a downturn in health, underwent various operations in secret, then eventually handed over power to his brother Raúl Castro.
Firstly, as anyone who looks at the UK coverage of Venezuela will see, there has been little that has been kept secret about Chavez’s illness. During what Jonathan Watts refers to as ‘the saga of Hugo Chávez's health’, there have been countless reports every time the Venezuelan president has visited Cuba for further treatment. Of all the articles on the BBC website about Venezuela in 2011, over one third focussed on the President’s health.
The other suggested parallel here is that power would be ‘handed over’ to a successor, which is plainly not the case in Venezuela, in which the constitution has clear rules for what should happen if a president cannot finish his term. The BBC pointed this out recently: ‘if his health fails in the first four years of his term, the Constitution states that a new election needs to be called in 30 days’. In his speech before his latest operation, Chavez recommended that Venezuelans to vote for Nicolas Maduro if there are new elections. This is instead widely reported as the appointing of a ‘successor’, as for exampleThe Guardian suggested on 9 December with the headline ‘Hugo Chávez names successor after confirming need for cancer surgery’.
The coverage of the Venezuelan vice-president Nicolas Maduro has added to the overall critical stance taken by journalists towards the Venezuelan government. In a show of elitist posturing, the BBC and The Guardian can hardly mention him without noting that he is a ‘former bus driver’, while Virginia Lopez at The Guardian has been quick off the mark to inform us that Chavez’s ‘incendiary heir’ did not finish school. It appears that these factors are deemed the most important in determining the validity of Nicolas Maduro potentially leading the Latin American country.
Faced with reports of the Venezuelan President’s illness such as those seen in the last week, it is worthwhile to seriously question whether journalists would take the same attitude if reporting on a similar situation in another country. The general position on the Venezuelan government in the UK media has been upheld, and the efforts to caricature members of the government continue to cloud the interpretation and presentation of events.