The half-page, feature length article by Peter Sherwell about the current situation in Venezuela that appeared in The Sunday Telegraph on 29th November follows an established pattern of unsympathetic and negative reporting in European and North American media, some of it touched on in my book Chávez: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. While this particular report is unremarkable for its fulsome dismissal of the Venezuelan president and the changes he has wrought, it is worth pausing to analyse the arrangement of components deployed in the process of denunciation. The repeated application of such negative reporting has led most people, even those on the liberal left, to assume that Chávez is some combination of clown and dictator and that any supposed attempt at social change in Venezuela over the last 10 years has been a complete failure.
Under the eye-catching banner headline ‘No fat people, no singing in the shower… the ever-bizarre rules of life under Chávez‘ a sub-title summarises the piece; “With his Red revolution in trouble, Venezuela’s ‘loco’ president relies on strange – and sinister – tirades”. The picture accompanying the article shows Chávez with a clenched fist raised in revolutionary salute superimposed on a background of the barrios, the shanty towns that surround the city of Caracas. Visually this does not carry a strongly distorted or pejorative view (unless to Telegraph readers the left gesture is already an indictment…), but the first two paragraphs already assemble the principle components of the dismissal of Chávez’s policies. In the decade he has been in power he has begun initiatives which have aimed to change the distribution of benefits from oil wealth: “an oil boom that has poured an estimated $800 billion into his coffers, the energy-rich state is plagued by ever more frequent power cuts and desperate water shortages” leading to a generalised loss of support “among those who should be his bedrock followers – the poor.”
These broad assertions segue seamlessly into comic ridicule: “in recent weeks he has urged his countrymen to stop wasting water by singing in the shower and complained at their enthusiasm for energy-guzzling shopping malls. He has promised to fly personally with Cuban scientists to “zap” clouds and make them rain.” The material that allows Western commentators to mock Chávez is often derived from his extensive weekly television and radio broadcasts, Aló Presidente , which he has persistently maintained as a line of direct communication with his support base.
Inevitably such extensive homely discourses are too long and informal for the controlled presentational habits of Western political discourse, it is easy to find short sound bites that can be taken from their context and used to ridicule or indict him. They are cultural misunderstandings, open to distortion from the perspective of the traditional formality in European politics which only relaxes in carefully choreographed moments when a political leader appears in his slacks and open-collared check shirt with his family at the weekend.
Chávez is unavoidably walking through a minefield by making improvised remarks about contentious characters like Carlos the Jackal, in 2001 he talked about his soft spot for the Jackal: “We have a commitment to this citizen,” he said during a visit to Paris, “especially to guarantee that his human rights are respected.” Of course there are complex political questions around a figure like Ramirez Sanchez, whatever his commitment to the Palestinian cause, it is easy to depict someone as a pathological terrorist when he has admitted his predilection for shooting people in the face. Pressuring the French government it also undermines the Venezuelan case for the US to extradite Luis Posada Carriles who is accused of terrorist bombings in Cuba.
Of course Chavez’s comments should not be immune from criticism, however that does not justify the consistent and specifically malicious misinformation spread about him in a press release from the Simon Wiesenthal Centre suggesting that he made an anti-semitic speech on Christmas Eve in 2006. This interpretation was formed by re-editing of Chávez’s original speech, which dropped a key sentence, and has been conclusively refuted. However it was repeated in Damian Thompson’s report for the Telegraph on the Venice Film Festival on 7th September this year.
The article uses a series of quotations from Enrique Linares, a disillusioned supporter from the El Junquito barrio, and then moves back to Chávez’s comments on Aló Presidente encouraging citizens to save electricity and lose weight (the president mentions losing 20 pounds himself) via a gratuitous and salacious reference to the country’s “love motels”, where amorous couples rent rooms by the hour.
The last section of the article quotes Robert Bottome of VenEconomia criticising overall government performance:
“This is a government that is grotesquely inefficient at even the most basic tasks, with the great exception of propaganda,”
The agreement between US and Venezuela’s neighbour Colombia, originally to create 7 new American bases, has now changed to flexible use by the US military of all Colombian facilities and terrain – that is characterised in the article as a “useful distraction” for Chávez. This can also be viewed from the perspective of the long history of the northern neighbour’s interference in Latin America. It is not an equal or respectful relationship, and as in Iraq, where American troops have immunity – there is to be no legal recourse for actions taken in Colombian jurisdiction. Undoubtedly the legitimate concern to disrupt the drug trade is a factor, but the move can also be seen as a tactical ploy as the US prepares options for continuing conflicts in the Middle East, including the possibility of armed confrontation with Iran.
Given the general tone of the article the last sentence is an unexpected reversal of perspective; quoting Ana Urdaneta who is “a barber who gives cheap haircuts to the elderly by morning and in the afternoon attends a crash course to become a “socialist lawyer”, and who said: “We are all fighting for the revolutionary vision. Only Chavez is fighting for the people of this country.”" The online version of the article adds a reference to “Roberto Montoya, president of the Centre for Latin American Studies and a leading pro-regime intellectual”, and who is attributed with: “Revolutions are unpredictable. But we are coming from a society that was run by capitalist parasites and that takes time.” Is this to be understood as a gesture of belated balance or the reluctant admission of some residual support for a regime that has won 13 of 14 electoral contests in the last 10 years – in case it wins another one?
The explanatory frame around the barber who is on a course to become a ‘socialist lawyer’ (an oxymoron in Western terms) goes some way towards explaining his loyal support. No such frame is offered for critics like Enrique Linares, the disillusioned supporter, or Robert Bottome, the analyst.
The basic method of the article is the deployment of such highly selective and fragmentary facts that they effectively become opinions. Importantly they appear to work within a factual genre of reporting, retaining the status of balanced and truthful coverage bolstered by both sourced and anonymous quotations. The piece looks like a traditional journalistic report, but this is disingenuous and dissembling as it is clearly an ensemble of meanings intentionally put together to create an overall sense that Chávez is authoritarian and ridiculous and the attempted social revolution in Venezuela is a failure. The black propaganda has already been effective in creating a loose penumbra of negative connotation around the perception of Chávez and his politics. Constructing Chávez as the unique focus of unremitting criticism, rather than other leftist leaders in Latin America, creates a personal target for vilification and works by metonymy. The recent electoral victory by Evo Morales in Bolivia, winning 67% of the popular vote with broadly similar policies, has not been met with equivalent reporting. A recent report by FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) finds editors downplaying Colombia’s human rights abuses and amplifying Venezuela’s. If Chávez can be personally indicted why examine the wider picture – the complex continuities and differences in the political shifts of a whole continent?
Perhaps we need to mobilise any residual naivety and persist in our innocent expectations that lead us to ask for a press which adheres to its oft proclaimed standards of integrity and fairness, its own notions of objectivity and balance.
Rod Stoneman is the author of Chávez: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised - Wallflower Press (2009) and is Director of the Huston School of Film & Digital Media, NUI, Galway. Photograph courtesy of the official Aló Presidente website.