The Op-Ed Assassination of Hugo
A non-hostile view of Venezuelan
President Hugo Chavez is hard to find in U.S. media.
by Justin Delacour
Extra magazine, Nov-Dec 2005 (FAIR)
After televangelist Pat Robertson publicly
called for the assassination of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez
Frias (700 Club, 8/22/05), the editors of several major newspapers
were quick to denounce his outrageous incitement to violence.
However, in criticizing the conservative televangelist, the prestige
press overlooked its own highly antagonistic treatment of Venezuela's
president, which surely contributed to the heated political climate
in which Robertson made his threat.
Even so-called "moderate" columnists
have contributed to the deterioration of U.S-Venezuela relations
by distorting the Venezuelan government's domestic and foreign
policy record. Robertson may indeed be "just a garden variety
crackpot with friends in high places," as the New York Times
opined (8/25/05), but the televangelist's erroneous characterization
of Venezuela's president as a "strong-arm dictator"
is hardly distinguishable from, say, Thomas Friedman's contention
that Chavez is an "autocrat" (New York Times, 3/27/05).
In studying the opinion pages of the top
25 circulation newspapers in the United States during the first
six months of 2005, Extra! found that 95 percent of the nearly
100 press commentaries that examined Venezuelan politics expressed
clear hostility to the country's democratically elected president.
Consistent with the U.S. media's habit
of personalizing international political disputes, commentaries
frequently disparaged Chavez as a political "strongman,"
treating him as if he were the country's sole and all-powerful
political actor. U.S. op-ed pages scarcely mentioned the existence
of Venezuela's democratically elected National Assembly, much
less its independent legislative role. Commentaries almost invariably
omitted the Venezuelan government's extensive popular support,
as evidenced by Chavez's resounding victory in the August 2004
referendum on his presidency.
Mainstream newspapers rarely publish commentaries
by political analysts who sympathize with the Chavez government's
policies of extending education, healthcare, subsidized food and
micro-credits to the country's poor. It's nearly impossible to
find a U.S. op-ed page with commentary like that of Julia Buxton,
the British scholar of Venezuelan politics, who argues (Venezuelanalysis.com,
4/23/05) that the Chavez government "has brought marginalized
and excluded people into the political process and democratized
U.S. op-ed pages' collective derision
of the Chavez government reveals profound contradictions within
the commercial press. While editorial boards parrot official U.S.
rhetoric about "democracy promotion" abroad, they have
refused to provide space for commentary representing popular opinion
in Venezuela. In spite of the fact that recent polls indicate
that Chavez's domestic approval rating has surpassed 70 percent,
almost all commentaries about Venezuela represent the views of
a small minority of the country, led by a traditional economic
elite that has repeatedly attempted to overthrow the government
in clearly anti-democratic ways.
In presenting opinions that are almost
exclusively hostile to the Chavez government, U.S. commentaries
about Venezuela serve as little more than a campaign of indoctrination
against a democratic political project that challenges U.S. political
and economic domination of South America. The near-absence of
alternative perspectives about Venezuela has prevented U.S. readers
from weighing opposing arguments so as to form their own opinions
about the Chavez government.
The strongman who would be dictator
In assessing Latin American governments,
U.S. columnists generally operate on the unspoken assumption that
acquiescence to U.S. leadership of the hemisphere is a natural
prerequisite to "democracy." By this definition, Venezuela's
government-which frequently speaks out in opposition to U.S. meddling
in the region-is considered "authoritarian." Gone is
the elementary principle that majority rule and popular sovereignty
serve as the basic foundations of democracy.
Having no basis to question the Chavez
government's popular mandate, op-ed pages resort to casting the
president as heavy-handed. Such negative portrayals of Venezuela's
government were particularly common in the Miami Herald, Wall
Street Journal, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, which accounted
for more than 75 percent of commentaries about Venezuela.
The near uniformity of the op-ed pages'
distorted characterizations of Venezuelan politics reveals their
propagandistic nature. The Miami Herald's Andrés Oppenheimer
called Chavez a "democratically elected populist strongman"
(2/27/05), claiming that he has engaged in "piecemeal destruction
of the democratic system" (1/30/05). Similarly, the Herald's
editorial board (5/8/05) warned that "democracy remains very
much at risk under [Chavez's] demagogic sway."
The Wall Street Journal's Mary Anastasia
O'Grady labeled Chavez a "tyrant" (1/21/05) and "strongman"
(4/29/05), claiming that he has presided over "the collapse
of democracy" (2/11/05) in Venezuela. Three Journal editorials
also referred to Chavez as a "strongman" (1/14/05, 3/14/05,
5/25/05), and the editorial board went so far as to suggest that
Parade magazine should consider placing Chavez on its annual list
of the world's worst dictators (2/15/05).
Jackson Diehl, the Washington Post's deputy
editorial editor (3/28/05), claimed that Chavez is "well
on his way to destroying what was once the most stable and prosperous
democracy in Latin America." The Los Angeles Times (5/29/05)
called Chavez a "would-be dictator," claiming that he
engages in "undemocratic tactics."
Other major U.S. newspapers have cast
Venezuela's president in nearly verbatim terms. The Houston Chronicle
(2/18/05) called Chavez "authoritarian" and a "strongman,"
while the Chicago Tribune (6/25/05) labeled him "autocratic."
USA Today (4/25/05) editorialized that Chavez "consolidates
power in decidedly undemocratic ways," while the Chicago
Sun-Times' Robert Novak (2/14/05) asserted that Chavez is "solidifying
"Democracy and free enterprise"
The U.S. media's distorted characterizations of Venezuela's government
were typified by Diehl (Washington Post, 1/17/05), who claimed
that Chavez is "aggressively moving to eliminate the independence
of the media and judiciary, criminalize opposition and establish
state control over the economy."
The Post more explicitly conflated democracy
with U.S-sponsored "free market" policies in a January
14 editorial, in which it asserted that Chavez's "assault
on private property is merely the latest step in what has been
a rapidly escalating 'revolution' . . . that is undermining the
foundations of democracy and free enterprise."
The notion that U.S.-sponsored neo-liberalism
("free enterprise") is the only economic model compatible
with democracy was further promoted by the Miami Herald (5/8/05),
which declared that "the pugnacious Mr. Chavez is determined
to push his populist model to the people of the region as a competitor
to real democracies."
Aside from the fact that there is no state-sponsored
"assault on private property" in Venezuela, the Post
and Herald made no effort to explain how state intervention in
the economy negates the Chavez government's democratic credentials.
There is, in fact, a long tradition of pro-development state intervention
in Latin American democracies. The Chavez government's land-reform
policies which form the basis of the Post's claim that Chavez
attacks private property come in the wake of several democratic
experiments in agrarian reform in countries as diverse as Chile,
Brazil, Bolivia and Guatemala.
Contrary to the Post and Herald's warped
depiction of Chavez's economic policies as anti-democratic, those
policies largely reflect the broad popular rejection of U.S.-sponsored
"free-market" policies in Venezuela. In the Post's only
commentary during the period surveyed that was favorable to the
Chavez government, columnist Harold Meyerson (4/13/05) astutely
pointed out that Latin America's recent political swing to the
left has come about democratically. Discussing the possibility
that Mexico City Mayor Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador might
be elected president of Mexico, Meyerson noted:
Coming after the elections of Luiz lnacio
Lula da Silva in Brazil, Nestor Kirchner in Argentina and Hugo
Chavez (repeatedly) in Venezuela, it would be one more indication,
a huge one, that Latin America has rejected an economics of corporate
autonomy, public austerity and no worker rights.
Separation of powers
In addition to ignoring the Venezuelan
government's popular mandate to carry out its policies, columnists
ignore the Venezuelan National Assembly's role in formulating
major political legislation, such as the recent expansion of the
Supreme Court and the Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and
Television. U.S. op-ed pages erroneously portray Chavez as the
author of all such legislation. For example, Oppenheimer (Miami
Herald, 6/5/05) contended that Chavez "single-handedly packed
his country's Supreme Court with loyalists."
In reality, the expansion of Venezuela's
five-chamber Supreme Court was first debated and then approved
by the National Assembly. Pro-government legislators argued that
the existing number of judges could not adequately handle their
caseloads (Venezuelanalysis.com, 5/27/04). Venezuelan legal expert
Carlos Escarrá has pointed out that the court's constitutional
and political chambers were backlogged with thousands of cases
(Venezuelanalysis .com, 5/17/04).
In contrast to the U.S. system, in which
the president makes judicial appointments and Congress votes on
whether to confirm them, Venezuela's National Assembly selects
Supreme Court magistrates. In the process of expanding the court,
the Assembly selected 17 new justices from a list of 157 candidates
pre-selected by a committee made up of representatives of the
offices of the human rights ombudsman, the attorney general and
the comptroller general (Radio Nacional de Venezuela, 12/13/04).
Only in propaganda can this process be described as Chavez having
"single-handedly packed" Venezuela's court.
Columnists who attack the "stacking"
of Venezuela's Supreme Court also neglect to explain the political
context within which the National Assembly voted to increase the
number of magistrates. Among U.S. op-ed writers, only the progressive
U.S. economist Mark Weisbrot (Miami Herald, 12/20/04) pointed
out that Venezuela's Supreme Court had refused to prosecute military
officers who temporarily overthrew the elected government in April
In light of the court's failure to defend
the country's democratic institutions against violent attempts
to subvert them, Weisbrot argued that it was not unreasonable
for the National Assembly to expand the court (Christian Science
Monitor, 8/11/04). "If you had a Supreme Court in the U.S.
that ruled that the people who participated in a military coup
could not be prosecuted, Congress would impeach those justices,"
U.S. commentaries are also inaccurate
in asserting that Venezuela's media law (see sidebar) was simply
"pushed through" the National Assembly by Chavez. Venezuelan
legislators not only deliberated about the law, but also held
in-depth studies of other countries' communication laws in drafting
it. Among the communication laws from which legislators drew inspiration
were those of England, France, Switzerland, Spain, Argentina,
Mexico and the United States.
When the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress
passes a piece of legislation and George W. Bush signs it into
law, one scarcely finds U.S. commentaries asserting that the president
"pushed" the legislation through a "compliant"
congress. However, when Venezuela's democratically elected National
Assembly undertakes a similarly complex process of devising legislation
that Chavez subsequently signs into law, U.S. commentaries portray
the country's legislative process as if it were stage-managed
Guilt by association
Another method that op-ed pages use to
cast Venezuela's president as "authoritarian" is to
highlight his relationship with Cuban leader Fidel Castro. In
this case, the principle upon which columnists base their argument
is not only irrational but also selectively applied. To point
to Venezuela's strategic international alliance with Cuba as "evidence"
that Venezuela is copying the Cuban model is no more valid than
to argue that the United States is
becoming a monarchy on account of its
strategic international relationship with the Saudi royal family.
Unfortunately, the faulty logic of classifying
a country's political system on the basis of its international
alliances is all too common in op-ed coverage of Venezuela. For
example, in charging that Chavez is "eroding the institutions
on which democracies depend," the only supposed evidence
that the Washington Post's Fred Hiatt (5/30/05) offered was Chavez's
"embrace" of Fidel Castro. Similarly, the Wall Street
Journal's O'Grady (4/1/05) labeled Chavez a "Castroite,"
and ludicrously claimed (7/8/05) that Venezuela is now a "Cuban
Such commentaries failed to distinguish
between the political and economic systems of Cuba and Venezuela.
The two governments have a mutual interest in countering U.S.
political and economic domination of the hemisphere and reaping
the benefits of an agreement whereby Cuban healthcare experts
and teachers assist impoverished Venezuelan neighborhoods in exchange
for Venezuelan oil at preferential prices.
However, as the U.S.-based Council on
Hemispheric Affairs noted (6/21/05), Venezuela's "new socialism"
differs from Cuba's "real socialism" in that it is "significantly
more tolerant of private economic enterprise" and considerably
more experimental in its "mixed economy" approach to
achieving socialist goals. Venezuela's Bolivarian Revolution "promotes
state intervention in the economy yet tolerates private business,
and mobilizes society through [Chavez's] revolutionary party,
but allows political opposition the necessary vehicles to proselytize
as well," COHA noted.
A destabilizing force
Columnists pointed to Venezuela's strategic
alliance with Cuba in charging that Chavez is destabilizing the
Western Hemisphere by meddling in other Latin American countries.
For example, Diehl wrote (Washington Post, 6/06/05), "In
his ever-closer bonding with Havana's security and intelligence
apparatus, his aggressive encouragement of the insurgencies in
Bolivia and elsewhere, and his constant stoking of Latin anti-Americanism,
the elected but increasingly authoritarian Venezuelan [president]
is emerging as the natural successor to a fading Fidel Castro."
Diehl carelessly ignores the fact that
no evidence of Chavez's supposed meddling in Bolivia has ever
been presented. When Roger Noriega, formerly the U.S. State Department's
top official on Latin America, suggested that Chavez was somehow
responsible for the demonstrations in Bolivia that culminated
in the recent resignation of the country's president, even the
stridently anti-Chavez Miami Herald (6/8/05) could find no proof
for the charge. Herald reporter Jane Bussey wrote, "Bolivian
government officials and Western diplomats in the region have
told the Herald that while the allegations of Chavez's financial
aid to [Bolivian opposition leader Evo] Morales are widespread,
there's been no hard evidence to support the charges."
Not even Bolivia's ousted president, Carlos
Mesa, was willing to support the claim of Venezuelan interference.
"I did not have, while in office, intelligence information"
about Venezuela's alleged intervention in the Bolivian conflict,
Mesa told Mexico City's El Universal newspaper (6/13/05). Despite
the lack of evidence of Chavez's alleged intervention, an April
22 editorial in the Post stated that Chavez has promoted "populist
turmoil" in Bolivia.
Aside from neglecting to provide proof
for the charge that Chavez destabilizes Latin America, columnists
failed to recognize the hypocrisy of accusing Venezuela of meddling
in a region where U.S. interference is second to none. In reality,
it is the Bush administration-not the Chavez government-that is
known to meddle in the internal affairs of Latin American countries.
During recent presidential races in Nicaragua (2001), Bolivia
(2002) and El Salvador (2004), Bush administration officials openly
threatened to penalize the three countries if their citizens elected
candidates who opposed U.S. policies.
In addition, the U.S. government has blatantly
interfered in the internal politics of Latin American countries
by funding allied political organizations through the U.S. National
Endowment for Democracy (NED), and by intervening militarily in
the region via arms sales, the construction of U.S. military bases,
and the sponsorship of massive counter-insurgency efforts in Colombia.
Direct U.S. intervention in the region is hardly a distant memory,
with the U.S. invading to overthrow the government of Panama as
recently as 1989, and U.S. troops arriving to support an unelected
government in Haiti in 2004.
The U.S. press's dismissal of the broad
popular support enjoyed by the Chavez government, and that government's
success in bringing poor and working-class Venezuelans into the
political process, makes it hard to argue that op-ed attacks on
Chavez are motivated by a genuine concern for democracy. Instead,
newspapers seem to be following the lead of the U.S. government,
which has long divided countries into friends and foes less on
the basis of political openness or popular legitimacy and more
on the question of how subservient they are to U.S. economic interests.
In a rare commentary that took a sympathetic
approach to the Chavez government, Los Angeles Times columnist
Robert Scheer summed up the hypocrisy of U.S. foreign policy (1/25/05):
The fact is ... that when totalitarian
nations like China and Saudi Arabia play ball with U.S. business
interests, we like them just fine. But when Venezuela's freely
elected president threatens powerful corporate interests, the
Bush administration treats him as an enemy.
As this review of op-ed coverage of Venezuela
suggests, this double standard with respect to "democracy
promotion" is constantly echoed in major U.S. media, which
are economically tied to those same corporate interests. In grossly
slanting their op-ed coverage against the Chavez government and
in line with Bush administration policy, the press demonstrates
a degree of political uniformity that any "would-be dictator"
would surely envy. o
Justin Delacour (email@example.com) is afreelance
writer and doctoral student of political science at the University
of New Mexico.