A Bad Press for Venezuela’s Chávez

by Bart Jones

As a former foreign correspondent for the Associated Press who spent eight years in Venezuela, one of the most arresting things to me about Hugo Chávez is how the mass media generally depicts him as a buffoon, at best, or some kind of brutal dictator and evil monster. When Chávez visited London, for instance, one daily ran a front-page photo showing Chávez seemingly giving a fascist salute.

Now Chávez is sure to give more ammunition to his critics as he moves to eliminate limits on the number of times he can run for president. A new vote on the proposal, already defeated as part of a national referendum a year ago, could come as early as February 2009.

Chávez’s detractors already are complaining that the nation has previously voted on the issue, and that it is the latest move by the former paratrooper to install himself as “president for life” a la Fidel Castro.

Chávez’s supporters argue that countries such as Britain and France have no limits on re-electing their leaders, and that Chávez would have to run for office every six years in legitimate elections. First elected in December 1998, Chávez is due to leave office in February 2012, ending 14 years in power.

While Chávez’s decision clearly underscores one of the weaknesses of the Bolivarian Revolution – its one-man show aspect and over-dependence on Chávez as its central figure – it’s also important to keep in mind some basic context as his detractors pull out their arrows again. The bottom line, as I document in my new biography “HUGO!” is that until now Chávez has generally remained within the bounds of democracy.

Chávez is not massacring people or lining up opponents against a wall before a firing squad. People can protest freely against him, and do so by the hundreds of thousands as they take to the streets in mass demonstrations. Critics even go on television and call for coups against Chávez, something unimaginable in the UK or the US, where such an act would have the FBI or CIA knocking on the perpetrator’s door in about five minutes and land him in jail. In Venezuela, they go free.

The country has real elections, certified by people such as Jimmy Carter. When Chávez lost the referendum last year, and suffered other setbacks in regional elections last month, he accepted the results. Sounds like kind of a strange dictatorship.

Of course, not everything is a wonderland in Venezuela. Chávez lost some important races last month including in the capital Caracas because his government, like any government, is flawed. While it has implemented widely praised health and education programs in slums and generally redirected the country’s vast oil wealth to the poor majority for the first time in Venezuela’s history, it has also failed to crack down on rampant crime and corruption and failed at mundane tasks such as collecting the garbage.

Chávez may want to travel the globe promoting Third World solidarity, but he better not forget to address bread and butter issues back home. Still, the media would do well to keep a little perspective and balance in mind when it covers Chávez, and maybe drop the double standard for a bit. In neighbouring Colombia, President Alvaro Uribe’s government is awash in scandal over its ties to right-wing paramilitary death squads that have murdered scores of trade unionists, peasants, and others. US ally Uribe, it can be argued, has blood on his hands. Not to mention that his country is the world’s number one producer of cocaine. There is no evidence at all that Chávez has ties to paramilitary death squads. Yet Chávez is the bad guy, Uribe is the good guy, and the Colombian paramilitary story is hardly a major scandal in the press. Imagine if it was Chávez with blood on his hands.

With Barack Obama about to be sworn in as president, US policy may be shifting from the Bush approach of trying to undermine or even overthrow Chávez to trying to engage him as Bill Clinton’s administration did. Obama has said he may be willing to speak to leaders such as Chávez rather than simply isolate them. For the media this might be a good time to employ a little less hysteria – some would say demonisation – in its coverage of Chávez, and a little more rational, balanced, fact-based analysis. Chávez is no saint, but he might not be quite the evil monster so many people picture today.

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