Following the death of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez on March 5, the BBC reported from the funeral:
More than 30 world leaders attended the ceremony, including Cuban President Raul Castro, Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus.
A message was read out from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
A rogues’ gallery of the West’s “bad guys”, in other words. To the side of the main article, the BBC quietly noted that, in fact, “Most Latin American and Caribbean Presidents” attended the funeral, not just the Bond villains.
Following the same theme, a BBC article appeared beneath a grim photo montage of Osama bin Laden, Chávez, Kim Jong-il, Muammar Gaddafi, Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein. The report asked: “Is the era of the anti-American bogeymen at an end?”
Like many independent nationalists, Chávez was not “anti-American”, although he was anti-empire. US foreign policy, on the other hand, was certainly anti-Chávez, “variously portrayed as a six-times elected champion of the people or a constitution-fiddling demagogue”, the BBC piece noted.
Similar “balance” was offered by the Guardian’s Rory Carroll, lead author of the newspaper’s Venezuelan coverage between 2006-2012:
To the millions who revered him – a third of the country, according to some polls – a messiah has fallen, and their grief will be visceral. To the millions who detested him as a thug and charlatan, it will be occasion to bid, vocally or discreetly, good riddance.
Fair comment, one might think, until we try to imagine a UK journalist writing anything comparable to the second sentence in response to the death of a US president or UK prime minister.
And yet, unlike so many US and UK leaders of recent times, Chávez did not invade nations, overthrow governments, commit mass murder, mass torture, or mass starvation through sanctions. Indeed, in his years as president from 1999-2013 he was not credibly accused of a single political murder.
If it is to be considered fair, condemnation of Chávez should be proportionate to the extent of his alleged crimes and consistent with the level of condemnation directed at US-UK leaders’ far worse crimes. If Chávez gets much more for doing far less, we are in the realm of propaganda, not journalism.
To be consistent, then, a senior Guardian journalist should respond to the death of George H.W. or George W. Bush, for example, with something along these lines:
To the tens or hundreds of millions who detested him as a mass murdering and torturing thug, war criminal and charlatan, it will be occasion to bid, vocally or discreetly, good riddance.
Fairness also requires that reporters take account of the fact that recent US presidents and UK prime ministers have not had to govern small countries in the face of political, military and economic attacks – including guerrilla warfare, outright invasion, economic strangulation and terrorism – launched, over decades, by a global superpower.
In 1928, Venezuela was the world’s leading oil exporter. To achieve its goal of “economic hegemony in Venezuela”, Stephen Rabe noted, the US “actively supported the vicious and venal regime of Juan Vincente Gómez.”1
Noam Chomsky supplied further background:
From World War II, in Venezuela the US followed the standard policy of taking total control of the military “to expand U.S. political and military influence in the Western Hemisphere and perhaps help keep the U.S. arms industry vigorous…
The Kennedy Administration increased its assistance to the Venezuelan security forces for “internal security and counterinsurgency operations against the political left”… 2
In 1991, Chomsky described the Latin American political context out of which Chávez emerged:
… any popular effort to overthrow the brutal tyrannies of the oligarchy and the military is met with murderous force, supported or directly organized by the ruler of the hemisphere. Ten years ago, there were signs of hope for an end to the dark ages of terror and misery, with the rise of self-help groups, unions, peasant associations, Christian base communities, and other popular organizations that might have led the way to democracy and social reform. This prospect elicited a stern response by the United States and its clients, generally supported by its European allies, with a campaign of slaughter, torture, and general barbarism that left societies “affected by terror and panic,” “collective intimidation and generalized fear” and “internalized acceptance of the terror,” in the words of a Church-based Salvadoran human rights organization. Early efforts in Nicaragua to direct resources to the poor majority impelled Washington to economic and ideological warfare, and outright terror, to punish these transgressions by destroying the economy and social life.
In the Independent, Owen Jones provided a rare, honest glimpse of Venezuelan politics in 1989:
With gas subsidies removed, petrol prices soared, and impoverished Venezuelans took to the streets. Soldiers mowed protesters down with gunfire. Up to 3,000 died, a horrifying death toll up there with the Tiananmen Square massacre – in a country with a population 43 times smaller.
It was his abortive coup attempt against Pérez’s murderous, rampantly corrupt government in 1992 that launched Chávez to prominence.
These historical facts are filtered out of corporate media both designed and evolved to sell the state-corporate system as fundamentally benign. Because there is minimal popular awareness of the United States’ ruthless subjugation of Latin America, Chávez’s involvement in a failed coup can be portrayed as an outrage by Western journalists, as if the attempt had been made under contemporary European political conditions. Owen’s is the only example we could find of a UK press article containing the words “Chávez”, “Pérez” and “massacre”.
In a BBC video report, ‘Life of people’s hero and villain,’ James Robbins commented over footage showing two injured women and one blood-soaked man all in civilian clothes:
This is how Hugo Chávez originally burst onto the world stage. In 1992, as an army colonel, he led a military coup, trying and failing to grab power after decades of more or less corrupt rule in Venezuela.
In total, 14 soldiers were killed and 80 civilians injured. For the BBC, then, the significant violence began with Chávez and his coup – no mention was made of the earlier government massacre of 3,000 people described by Jones.
Fixing The Scales
Guardian assistant editor, Martin Kettle, wrote:
It is a mistake to concentrate on Chávez’s strutting and narcissistic populism to the exclusion of all the other aspects of his presidency. And it is even wrong to judge him solely as an abuser of human rights, a hoarder of power, an intimidator of opponents and a rejecter of international covenants and critics.
Again, imagine the Guardian using comparable language to condemn abuses of human rights, intimidation of opponents and rejection of international covenants by Reagan, Bush, Blair, Obama or Cameron the day after their death.
Kettle’s reference to “Chávez’s strutting and narcissistic populism” contrasts starkly with American economist Mark Weisbrot’s observation that ‘once [Chávez] got control of the oil industry, his government reduced poverty by half and extreme poverty by 70 per cent.
Millions of people also got access to health care for the first time, and access to education also increased sharply, with college enrolment doubling and free tuition for many. Eligibility for public pensions tripled.
He kept his campaign promise to share the country’s oil wealth with Venezuela’s majority, and that will be part of his legacy.
Compare, also, statistical analysis of Chávez’s performance supplied by the Centre For Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), co-directed by Weisbrot, with the BBC version of events.
The BBC graph, “Chavez’s Venezuela – the key figures”, shows a damning, steep rise in the “Poverty headcount” of “People living on 2% a day” between 2001-2003. It also depicts a steep fall in oil production from 2000-2003. CEPR, by contrast, observes:
From 1999-2003, the government did not control the state oil company; in fact, it was controlled by his opponents, who used it to try to overthrow the government, including the devastating oil strike of 2002-2003. For that reason, a better measure of economic growth under the Chávez government would start after it got control over the state oil company, and therefore the economy.’CEPR shows poverty and extreme poverty dropping sharply after 2003.
Returning to Kettle’s analysis in the Guardian, we can locate a deeper bias in his evaluation of Chávez’s record:
The reality is that Chávez’s career is not so easily weighed. How does one balance the championing of the poor or the regional inspiration against the persecution of journalism and the judiciary or the embrace of Iranian theocrats and Bashar al-Assad?
As discussed, even before considering the credibility of the specific claims, we simply must add to Chávez’s side of the scales the reality of a region “where any popular effort to overthrow the brutal tyrannies of the oligarchy and the military is met with murderous force, supported or directly organized by the ruler of the hemisphere”.
About this, Kettle had nothing to say, beyond dismissing the issue out of hand:
He [Chávez] once claimed that the lesson he drew from Allende’s Chile was the need to defend the socialist revolution with arms. In fact this was typical bravado. The real lesson was to win and hold a majority. Allende won one election with 36% support and died from bullet wounds as his palace was stormed by the armed forces.
The annihilation of inconvenient history allowed Kettle to use Allende as an example for his argument, when, in fact, it strongly supports Chávez’s case. On October 16, 1970, a secret cable from CIA headquarters to the CIA station chief in Santiago, Chile, read:
It is firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown by a coup… prior to October 24. But efforts in this regard will continue vigorously beyond this date. We are to continue to generate maximum pressure toward this end utilizing every appropriate resource. It is imperative that these actions be implemented clandestinely and securely so that the USG [U.S. government] and American hand be well hidden.
The US finally succeeded in overthrowing Allende in 1973. The US instigated a similar attempt to remove Chávez in 2002.
Kettle’s claim that Chávez persecuted journalism is simply false. In fact, “94 per cent of the TV that is seen by Venezuelans is not pro-government”. Five of seven major national newspapers support the opposition – only one is sympathetic to the government.
In 2007, Western media made much of the fact that the Venezuelan government had refused to renew the broadcasting license of the RCTV station. The Los Angeles Times reported that RCTV had initially focused on providing entertainment:
But after Chávez was elected president in 1998, RCTV shifted to another endeavour: ousting a democratically elected leader from office.’ (Bart Jones, ‘Hugo Chávez versus RCTV – Venezuela’s oldest private TV network played a major role in a failed 2002 coup. 3
The US-backed attempt came in 2002. On April 13, 2002, RCTV’s Marcel Granier and other media moguls met in the Miraflores palace to offer their support to the country’s new dictator, Pedro Carmona, who immediately demolished Venezuela’s democratic institutions – eliminating the Supreme Court, the National Assembly and the Constitution. RCTV news director Andres Izarra later testified at National Assembly hearings on the coup attempt that he had received clear orders from superiors at the station:
‘Zero pro-Chávez, nothing related to Chávez or his supporters… The idea was to create a climate of transition and to start to promote the dawn of a new country.’ (Bart Jones. For details, see our media alert)
The ‘response of the markets’ to the coup, “approached euphoria”, OECD economist Javier Santiso reported. The Caracas stock exchange registered huge gains, collapsing when Chávez was returned to power. In an unprecedented move, the International Monetary Fund “had also provided immediate offers of aid to the coup regime”.4
End Of An Illusion – Divisive, Egotistical, Controversial
The Guardian’s obituary commented:
The debate continued as to whether Chávez could fairly be described as a dictator, but a democrat he most certainly was not. A hero to many, especially among the poor, for his populist social programmes, he assiduously fomented class hatred and used his control of the judiciary to persecute and jail his political opponents, many of whom were forced into exile.
‘Internationally, Chávez posed as an anti-imperialist and lavished aid on ideological allies. Venezuela would, he claimed, play a vital role in saving the planet from the evils of capitalism. In a notorious speech to the UN general assembly in 2006, he called US president George W Bush “the devil”, claiming the podium still smelled of sulphur. It went down well in some quarters, but economic failure at home and the cosy relations he had enjoyed with dictators such as Robert Mugabe and Muammar Gaddafi would ultimately limit his appeal, even on the international left.
Compare the tone and content with the Guardian’s obituary of Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz from 2011:
People who knew Sultan praised his “strategic vision, the capacity to think big”, in particular after the 1973/74 oil price rises. Nevertheless, he had his critics. One analyst said that he presided over “the most colossal amount of money, in proportion to the size of a country’s economy, ever poured down the barrel of a gun”.
Sultan had a reputation for a fierce temper but his habit of working deep into the night won him the nickname of “bulbul” – nightingale. He was both a conservative and political moderate. “Sultan,” wrote Holden, “whose vigour on the couch [he had 32 children by 10 wives] was a cause for even more concern and respect, had proved a stern, tough and headstrong character”.
“The kingdom”, it seems, “is ruled by a frail gerontocracy”. No mention, here, of the fact that a democrat the Crown Prince most certainly was not.
Apparently without irony, the BBC’s John Sweeney commented of Venezuela:
The country should be a Saudi Arabia by the sea; instead the oil money has been pissed away by foolish adventurism and unchecked corruption.
In the Guardian, Simon Tisdall wrote under the cheerful title:
Death of Hugo Chávez brings chance of fresh start for US and Latin America.
Tisdall lamented “Washington’s historical neglect of Latin America” – again, apparently with a straight face.
The Independent reported:
The death of one of Latin America’s most egotistical, bombastic and polarising leaders.
Was Chávez more “egotistical” and “polarising” than Bush, Blair, Obama, Cameron? Are they ever described this way in news reports?
The BBC wrote of “Venezuela’s charismatic and controversial president”.
Although Bush, Blair, Cameron and Co. are no strangers to controversy, it is impossible to imagine the BBC writing of “America’s controversial president, Barack Obama”.
For the Telegraph, Chávez was “one of the region’s most popular, yet divisive leaders”. For the Guardian, “the much-loved, but also divisive, leader”. For the Independent’s David Usborne, he was “divisive in his political life”. An Independent editorial observed as “one of the world’s more colourful, charismatic and divisive political leaders passes into history”.
The editorial’s title read: “Hugo Chávez – an era of grand political illusion comes to an end”. This of a leader who had reduced poverty by half, having sparked a regional move towards greater independence from the ruthless superpower to the North. The editorial continued:
Mr Chávez was no run-of-the-mill dictator. His offences were far from the excesses of a Colonel Gaddafi, say. What he was, more than anything, was an illusionist – a showman who used his prodigious powers of persuasion to present a corrupt autocracy fuelled by petrodollars as a socialist utopia in the making. The show now over, he leaves a hollowed-out country crippled by poverty, violence and crime. So much for the revolution.
For the oligarch-owned Independent, then, Chávez – who won 15 democratic elections, including four presidential elections – was a dictator.
For The Economist, Chávez was “as reckless with his health as with his country’s economy and its democracy… A majority of Venezuelans may eventually come to see that Mr Chávez squandered an extraordinary opportunity for his country”.
Perhaps the millions of people mourning his death will one day see the sense coming out of London and Washington.
It is instructive to compare the opening and closing sections of the BBC’s obituaries on Chávez and Ronald Reagan.
The BBC’s piece on Chávez began:
A tough and charismatic leader, Hugo Chávez divided opinion both at home and abroad.
To his many supporters he was the reforming president whose idiosyncratic brand of socialism defeated the political elite and gave hope to the poorest Venezuelans.
His strident criticism of the United States won him many friends among the “pink tide” of political leaders in Latin America and he effectively used his country’s vast oil reserves to boost Venezuela’s international clout.
But to his political opponents he was the worst type of autocrat, intent on building a one-party state and ruthlessly clamping down on any who opposed him.
The obituary of Ronald Reagan began:
Ronald Reagan, who has died aged 93, became the 40th president of the United States in 1980 at the age of 69, the oldest man elected to the office.
During his eight years in the White House he left his mark on the lives of millions of Americans, and his presidency came to define an era.
His origins were humble…
The Chávez piece concluded:
It was like talking to two contrary men, Garcia Marquez wrote.
One to whom inveterate luck has granted the chance to save his country. The other, an illusionist, who could go down in history as just another despot.
The Reagan piece concluded:
More of a figurehead than a strong leader with a grasp for detail, he was, nevertheless, the best communicator the White House had ever had and, for a while, made America feel good about itself again.
Five years after leaving office he wrote an open letter to the American people. In it, he said: “I have recently been told I am one of the millions of Americans who will be afflicted with Alzheimer’s Disease… I now begin a journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life”.
The bias is remarkable even before we consider the issue of crimes against humanity. Reagan’s eight years in office (1981-89) resulted in a vast bloodbath as Washington funnelled money, weapons and other supplies to client dictators and right wing death squads across Central America. The death toll was horrific: more than 70,000 political killings in El Salvador, more than 100,000 in Guatemala, and 30,000 killed in the US Contra war waged against Nicaragua. Journalist Allan Nairn described it as: ‘One of the most intensive campaigns of mass murder in recent history.’ 5
Conclusion – The ‘Dangerous’ Leaders?
What lies behind the Western media’s obsession with Chávez? Why the extreme hostility and bias? A clue was provided by the Guardian when it observed that Venezuela is sitting on ‘The world’s biggest oil reserves’.
In discussing Chávez, Craig Murray, former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, summed up the reality:
He applied the huge increase in revenues to massively successful poverty alleviation via social programmes, housing and education.
The western states of course do everything to stop developing countries doing this, on behalf of the multinationals who control the politicians. They threaten (and I am an eye-witness) aid cancellation, disinvestment and trade sanctions. They work to make you a political pariah (just watch the media on Chávez today). They secretly sponsor, bankroll and train your opponents. The death of such “dangerous” leaders is a good outcome for them, as in Allende or Lumumba.
Chávez faced them down. There are millions of people in Venezuela whose hard lives are a bit better and have hope for the future because of Chávez. There are billionaires in London and New York who have a few hundred million less each because of Chávez. Nobody can deny the truth of both those statements.
One of the great tasks of our time is to appreciate how these undeniable realities distort coverage right across the supposed corporate media “spectrum”. Our ability to understand and respond to this problem is vital for the future, not just of Venezuela, but of all of us.
- Rabe, The Road To Opec, University of Texas Press, 1982 [↩]
- Chomsky, Year 501, Verso, 1993, pp.170-171 [↩]
- Los Angeles Times, May 30, 2007 [↩]
- Chomsky notes. (Chomsky, Hopes and Prospects, Hamish Hamilton, 2010, p.113 and p.79). [↩]
- A. Nairn, Democracy Now, June 8, 2004 [↩]
- Quoted, Milan Rai, War Plan Iraq, Verso, 2002, p.29. [↩]