The Guardian’s Distorted Depiction of Venezuela

August 05, 2010

The documentary film “South of the Border” examines how the governments of Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and other countries are depicted in the major U.S. media. Many major U.K. media outlets offer a similar treatment of Latin America. A recent analysis of BBC coverage of Venezuela in the Chávez years, for example, details numerous misleading statements and distortions. To take another case, The Guardian is currently prominently featuring a report from last year on “The rise and rule of” Hugo Chávez. The slideshow – almost a sort of mini-documentary – is done by South America correspondent Rory Carroll, and it provides a good example of the kinds of distortions and one-sided, de-contextualized information on South America that have appeared in many Guardian news reports over the past several years.

The slideshow begins violently, with the sound of gunshots and images of the failed 1992 coup d’etat launched by Chávez and other military officers. A barebones description of the coup quickly segues into an explanation that “Chávez … instead of shooting his way into power … seduced his way,” since “the poor were angry”, as Carroll puts it. There is no mention of the exponentially more bloody episode that would help explain how divided Venezuelan society had become prior to ‘92, and why the coup attempt was so popular: the 1989 caracazo, protests against IMF-mandated economic policies which were crushed by the Venezuelan military and police, resulting in hundreds and possibly thousands killed as troops fired on demonstrators.

Carroll includes the requisite mention of Chávez making friends with Fidel Castro (and celebrities – Sean Penn and Diego Maradona are shown), but there is no mention of him forging similarly strong ties with Brazilian President Lula da Silva, the Kirchners of Argentina, or any number of other less-controversial leaders. (An image of Evo Morales, whose administration has been subjected to similar editorialized coverage by Carroll, is included.)

Carroll tells us that Chávez “made enemies” by “fir[ing] thousands of striking oil workers,” and “infuriated the middle class by pushing for a self-styled ‘socialist revolution.’ Demonstrators demanded he resign and clashed with police.”

There are several significant distortions here: First, the oil strike is mentioned out of chronological sequence: it actually quickly followed the short-lived 2002 coup d’etat against Chávez (which Carroll has not mentioned at this point in the report). Chávez did not “make” these enemies by firing them, they were already taking action against him. They were striking to overthrow the government, something that in the U.S. or U.K. would not only get them fired, but would like result in arrest of the leaders. The oil strike – which was led by management and higher-paid workers – crippled the economy and caused a sharp downturn in economic growth and huge surge in poverty rates, which much of the U.S. and U.K. media would later blame on Chávez. Third, it is highly disingenuous to mention “middle class” discontent with Chávez without mentioning the support by many in the elite for the 2002 coup, the 2002-2003 oil strike, and other attempts to remove him from office by extra-legal means.

It is worth noting that, while Carroll distorts the class-based aspects of divisions within Venezuelan politics, he completely ignores race. There is no mention of Chávez’s indigenous or African heritage, let alone that many of his supporters are from darker-skinned constituencies that historically have been disenfranchised in Venezuela, while a lighter-skinned elite has traditionally wielded power.

Carroll does mention that “George Bush backed a coup against Chávez, but it backfired. The commandante emerged stronger, and really, really angry. He called Bush a devil, a donkey, an alcoholic, and Mr. Danger.” (In keeping with tradition for the vast majority of English language media, Carroll provides no explanation for the literary allusion embodied in the latter name. Without context, it sounds like a bizarre term invented by Chávez.)

The Bush administration did more than “back” the 2002 coup; it was involved – including by funding some of the groups involved in the coup – as is explained in “South of the Border” and declassified CIA documents. You can see a summary of the most important evidence of this involvement here.

Carroll concludes with the requisite “Venezuela is in crisis” theme:

Chávez’s 10th anniversary comes at a difficult time. Opposition is once again growing. Corruption and incompetence have left public services in tatters. Violent crime has soared, the streets are filled with rubbish, and hospitals are crumbling. Even some of the poor have turned against the president. And now oil prices are tumbling. There are tough times ahead for Chávez and Venezuela.

Carroll apparently feels no need to offer any evidence for these sweeping claims, as he offers none, and he ignores evidence to the contrary. Counter to the “growing” opposition claim, Angus Reid Global Monitor noted – just before Carroll’s slideshow was first posted, in February 2009 – that support for constitutional changes backed by Chávez was the most popular response in polling. Carroll may claim that “public services are in tatters,” but the data shows that roughly four million more Venezuelans now have access to clean drinking water, and over five million more Venezuelans now have access to sanitation than in 1998. Hospitals “crumbling”? Infant and child mortality has been cut by over one-third, and post neonatal mortality by over one-half, since 1998. And perhaps most important of all, poor people have access to free health care.

“But for now, Hugo Chávez is still popular, and still powerful.”

This acknowledgement, which Carroll is forced to admit since, after all, Chávez and his political parties have won election after election over the past decade, is followed in the form of the usual anecdotal quotes from people in Caracas. Statistics and other evidence of Venezuela’s economic and social progress – especially since the Venezuelan government got control of the oil sector – are ignored.

Carroll’s slideshow fits a pattern of similar distortions in his written reports, which have suggested, for example, that “Chávez is winning the media war,” and that “robust, critical, independent journalism” might soon no longer be tolerated in Venezuela (despite that the great majority of Venezuelan media remains privately owned, and the majority of the media, as measured by audience, is hostile towards the government); or that “the [Venezuelan] government seized control” of oil projects, when in fact there had been long negotiations with the companies over the terms of new contracts, with about 90 percent of the contracts re-negotiated, and the remainder (with Exxon-Mobil and Conoco) going to the World Bank’s arbitration court.

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