Spinning Hugo Chavez

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The popular media portrayal of recently deceased Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez as a dangerous dictator defies the reality of his rule, writes Iurgi Urrutia.

Hugo Chavez died on 5 March 2013. (Image courtesy Wikipedia.)

THE UNITED STATES has always seen Latin America as part of its ‘manifest destiny’.

U.S. interventions and meddling in South American politics, including support for military coups and dictators is well documented in history (see Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of America for example). The tactics have changed, from direct invasion, to intelligence and financial support to rebel generals or oligarchs. This has often been achieved with the support of uncritical and misleading coverage by the media. Now that Hugo Chavez has passed away and Venezuela, with the biggest reserves of oil on the planet, is of high interest to the US, it will be interesting to see not only how the US acts but also how the media reports the events.

One of the ongoing narratives against Hugo Chavez in mainstream media was the depiction of him as a dictator. I suspect most people in the U.S. and Australia would agree with the media’s assessment. The old argument of whether the media can shape public opinion and make people believe ‘something’ is important here. The problem is not whether people are gullible or not. When all the mainstream media portrays Chavez consistently as an authoritarian, or a dictator (or put whatever other synonym you want), how can the majority of people think of him otherwise?

The problem with that narrative is that it is so easily disqualified. Since Hugo Chavez was elected in 1998, he held and won more elections than any other President or Prime Minister in the U.S., Australia, or Europe.

As Eduardo Galeano joked:
‘Chavez is the strangest of dictators, considering he has won 12 consecutive clean elections.’

It’s important to note that all those elections were overseen by international observers. U.S. ex-president Jimmy Carter, who won a Nobel prize for his work with the Carter Center an organisation setup to observe and certify elections, said on September 11, 2012:
“As a matter of fact, of the 92 elections that we've monitored, I would say that the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world."

But these kind of views go, mostly, unreported in mainstream media. One may argue that ‘omission’ is a deliberate act of shaping and manipulating public opinion. Let’s not forget that during all these years, Chavez was also victim of a coup d’etat organised by the rich and powerful of Venezuela (as well as a national oil strike), in collusion with some elements of the army and the backing of the United States, who were quick to give the new ‘government’ legitimacy. After a few chaotic days, Chavez was restored as President and his democratic revolution continued.

Now that Chavez has died ,will the mainstream media take the opportunity to discredit the interim government before the upcoming elections? Some commentators were quick to cast a doubt over the legality of Nicolas Maduro (the vice president) taking the reins and have already started the character assassination of, not only Maduro himself, but also his wife. On March 11 Fairfax Media, published a heavily edited version of an article that originally appeared on The Daily Telegraph, that ended like this:
They were each married with young children and, although both later divorced their spouses, they have never formally tied the knot.

Those who know the couple describe Miss Flores as a woman of immense ambition and ability, with a political power base independent of her partner.

''She is a much smarter and stronger person than her husband,'' said Virginia Contreras, a former Venezuelan judge and ambassador.

''She comes from humble origins, but nowadays only wears designer brands and expensive jewellery, shoes and sunglasses.

''It is the opposite of what Chavez's '21st-century socialism' is supposed to mean.''

Perhaps in response to those who were quick to criticise, Nicolas Maduro was quick to announce an election date, very early within the 30 days that by law he had for such announcement. The date is now set for April 14th.

Hugo Chavez made a lot of enemies, both nationally and internationally, when he decided to nationalise oil and use the profits to help the most disadvantaged. Ever since then, the mainstream media has often reported on Venezuela as an economic disaster. Again, this story has been constructed by the mainstream media in the U.S., Europe and Australia and can easily be disproved.

The Venezuelan ambassador in Spain, summarised the economic feats of Chavez’s government in a recent interview with Spanish newspaper Publico. In contrast to unsupported media stories, he used hard economic data. In fact, according to the CIA World Factbook, Venezuelan public debt in relation to GDP was 60% when Hugo Chavez was first elected in 1998, but by 2012, it had fallen to 25%. Not only that, but at a time when Europe is in crisis, the U.S. is struggling, and there are serious concerns about growth in Australia, Venezuela’s economy grew 4.2% in 2011 and 5.7% in 2012.

The greatest achievement of Hugo Chavez’s government was in reducing poverty and helping the most disadvantaged. The mainstream media like to downplay this aspect and are quick to find Venezuelans who are poor, disgruntled and have not benefited in any way from Chavez’s social revolution.

In the same interview, the Venezuelan ambassador states that government spending in education increased under Chavez from 3.9% of GDP to 7%. Bearing in mind that the GDP has tripled, this constitutes an enormous investment. In 1998, there were 400,000 university students, now there are three million.

As reported by the United Nations, when Chavez was first elected, the percentage of people living in poverty was 49%, but by 2009 it was under 25%. More importantly, extreme poverty was reduced from 30% in the early years of Chavez’s government to just over 10% in the latter years — a great improvement by anyone’s standards.

We will have to pay close attention to the way the mainstream media report the electoral campaign and the upcoming elections. As usual, they will likely cast a shadow on the electoral process and aim to give legitimacy to the opposition. As demonstrated by Edward Herman, Noam Chomsky and Ignacio Ramonet (amongst others) this has been their modus operandi for decades, being benevolent with democratic deficiencies in electoral processes with countries that are considered allies and strongly condemning and defaming countries that are deemed dangerous.

The problem is not Chavez or Nicolas Maduro. The problem is that Venezuela has the biggest reserves of oil in the world, and it’s setting an example to other nations that stands in stark contrast to poor countries that have followed the IMF and World Bank’s doctrine of deregulation, privatisation and free trade only to end up poorer still (see Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine for a vast number of examples).

Venezuela has achieved economic growth, drastically reduced debt, increased public education, reduced poverty and tripled its GDP whilst not following the neoliberal doctrine. If it can help the most disadvantaged whilst still growing the economy, the country is setting an example to the rest of South America and Africa. This is seen as dangerous by the U.S. and the neoliberal consensus, where a few can amass vast amounts of wealth over the hardship, suffering and poverty of the majority.

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