Nov 1 2007

Imperial Mythology

Venezuela, Hugo Chávez and U.S. media

When it comes to U.S. press coverage of Venezuela, anything goes if it puts President Hugo Chávez and the movement that brought him to power in a bad light.

But among the tangle of misinformation that passes for Venezuela coverage, journalists often tip their hand, telling readers something true: Chávez and the political movement that has gained several electoral victories in Venezuela are a threat to U.S. interests in Latin America.

This is the real reason why Venezuela must be treated harshly, even if it means twisting facts: “Chavismo represents a major threat to American interests in the region, which we ignore at our peril,” wrote media mogul Mortimer B. Zuckerman in the column he runs in his newspaper (New York Daily News, 10/2/06) and news magazine (U.S. News, 10/9/06). In a sprawling profile of Chávez in May’s Atlantic Monthly, New Republic editor Franklin Foer explained that the Venezuelan’s ideology “represents a bigger threat to American interests in the region than anything the United States has seen in decades.”

By “American interests,” such journalists don’t mean what’s good for Americans; they mean what’s good for American elites, including highly placed media commentators. With this understood, the ways in which the current Venezuelan government threatens “American interests” are many.

U.S. pundits may deplore what Zuckerman calls Chávez’s “brash anti-American rhetoric,” but what really seems to worry them are Venezuelan economic policies and international relationships they see diminishing the U.S.’s power in Latin America and elsewhere.

Echoing official U.S. concerns, these journalists regularly sound the alarm over Venezuelan policies that have, among other things, increased taxes and royalties on oil companies operating in Venezuela (Dallas Morning News, 8/2/06; New York Times, 6/1/06), used oil and petro-dollars to provide foreign aid to neighbors (Philadelphia Inquirer, 6/18/06), opposed the U.S.-backed Free Trade Area of the Americas in favor of the regional trade group Mercosur (Washington Post, 8/6/06), and acted to undermine the U.S.-backed IMF lending regime (Miami Herald, 9/25/06).

Note that while these policies do pose a challenge to a system in which the U.S. has traditionally called the shots, they are reasonable and legitimate policy positions for a nation looking out for the best interests of itself and its region.

Challenging the U.S. is what has made Venezuela a target for American elites and establishment media outlets. But it’s difficult to smear a nation or a political leader by charging them with looking out for their own. This is why many journalists have embraced a series of distortions, largely originating in official Washington circles, and woven them into a media mythology.

In this mythology, Venezuela is an undemocratic banana republic whose president, Hugo Chávez, is an aspiring (or actual) dictator who has muzzled dissent and the press. According to the media narrative, Venezuela has become more corrupt under Chávez, a more prolific violator of human rights, and a hindrance to the war on drugs. Moreover, Venezuela is mismanaging its economy, leaving the poor no better off despite soaring oil revenues, and meddling in its neighbors political affairs.

These charges are not new. Over the years, in one combination or another, they have been leveled at other democratic countries that were attempting to assert their sovereignty and challenge a system of economics and international relations where the U.S. holds the upper hand. Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s, Chile in the ’70s and Nicaragua in the ’80s are among the legitimate, democratically elected governments that were systematically smeared by an American press acting as little more than an echo chamber for U.S. official interests.