The horror with which U.S. television personalities and newspaper columnists have responded to the Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s skewering of George W. Bush at the United Nations is just the latest in a long series of media portrayals of Chávez as a destabilizing force in the hemisphere. While op-ed pages scarcely mention the Bush administration’s continued interference in the internal affairs of Latin American countries, they regularly proffer unsubstantiated claims of meddling by Chávez, failing to recognize the hypocrisy of their selective indignation.
Ironically, the op-ed pages’ accusations of international meddling by the Chávez government are often inconsistent with the same newspapers’ reports. In arguing that Latin Americans are “rising up against the attempt of a would-be regional hegemonist [Chávez] to subvert them,” the Washington Post’s editorial board (6/4/06) pointed approvingly to a Mexican political advertisement—sponsored by conservative presidential candidate Felipe Calderón—that likened left-of-center candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador to Chávez.
Contrary to what the editorial implies, Post correspondent Manuel Roig-Franzia reported that Chávez had “not taken a public role in the Mexican campaign” (6/27/06); Roig-Franzia found no evidence of Venezuela-sponsored subversion in Mexico. But the claim of Venezuelan interference in Mexico’s presidential race was still repeated in the Post’s Sunday “Outlook” page (8/6/06), in a commentary by the conservative political scientist Francis Fukuyama.
Completely overlooked in the mainstream press, meanwhile, was the role that U.S. political consultants and U.S.-based multinational corporations played in Calderón’s campaign.
John Ross, an analyst of Mexican politics, pointed out (Counterpunch, 9/13/06) that months of anti-López Obrador “hit pieces”—designed by U.S. political campaign consultant Dick Morris to cast the left-of-center candidate as “a DANGER to Mexico in big red letters”— were “illegally financed by big business councils that included such transnationals as Wal-Mart and Halliburton.”
In an editorial that also made the unsubstantiated claim of Venezuelan interference in Mexico’s presidential race, Newsday (5/28/06) proffered the evidence-free claim that Chávez made “illegal financial contributions” to the presidential campaign of Peru’s left-nationalist presidential candidate Ollanta Humala. Likewise, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial (6/7/06) asserted that Humala “was backed by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, flush with oil money to put behind him.”
Although Chávez did publicly endorse Humala, the claim that the Venezuelan president funded Humala’s campaign is, once again, not backed up by press reports. A Newsday report (6/2/06) noted that Humala’s opponent, Alan Garc a, “accuses” Chávez of funding his rival, but the report also noted Humala’s denial of the accusation; the report provided no evidence of Venezuelan financial contributions to Humala’s campaign.
Here again, the U.S. press’ repetition of unfounded claims of meddling by Chávez contrasts starkly with its apparently total blackout of allegations that the U.S. interfered in Peru’s presidential race (London Independent, 4/12/06).
Jeremy Bigwood, a U.S. freelance writer and investigator specializing in Latin America, found that Peruvians who accused ex-army officer Humala of having previously committed human rights abuses were subsidized by the U.S. government’s National Endow-ment for Democracy (NED) and the United States Agency for International Development (Upside Down World, 3/15/06). A Nexis search of the terms “National Endowment for Democracy” and “Humala,” however, turns up zero reports or commentaries by the mainstream U.S. press.
To be sure, the U.S. and Venezuelan governments have competing interests in who wins Latin American elections, a fact that is nowhere more obvious than in Nicaragua. Reuters (9/19/06) reported that the Bush administration “openly opposes” Daniel Ortega, the left-wing Sandinista candidate whose former government was militarily sabotaged by U.S.-backed Contra rebels in the 1980s.
As the Houston Chronicle reported (8/20/06), U.S. envoys in Nicaragua “seem to be violating what is often considered a cardinal rule of diplomacy: Never publicly meddle in a host country’s presidential election, the quintessential internal affair.” According to Chronicle correspondent John Otis, “American heavyweights past and present—from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and former Secretary of State Colin Powell to Reagan-era U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick—have paraded through Managua to denounce the Sandinistas and Ortega, who leads the five-candidate race in opinion polls.”
Otis reported that Paul Trivelli, the U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua, went so far as to attempt to persuade the country’s divided Constitutional Liberal Party to hold a primary, “a move seen here as an effort to unify the rightist party behind [investment banker Eduardo] Montealegre.”
Later, the Associated Press (9/22/06) reported that U.S. Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., was headed to Nicaragua to meet with Montealegre and Sandinista dissident Edmundo Jarquón in an apparent attempt to encourage the two presidential candidates to “form an alliance to defeat Ortega in the November 5 election.” Washington’s interference in the Nicaraguan election was so blatant as to provoke an official rebuke from the Organization of American States, which singled out comments by Trivelli and U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez (Reuters, 10/21/06).
For its part, the Chávez government signed deals with Ortega to provide “cut-rate oil and agricultural products to Nicaraguan cities run by Sandinista mayors,” the Chronicle reported (8/20/06). The Washington Post (7/23/06) reported that Ortega has “tried to capitalize on the support he has received from Venezuela’s Chávez” by stressing the benefits of the oil deals for the Nicaraguan people. Ortega ended up winning the race for the presidency with 38 percent of the vote, vs. 29 percent for Montealegre, his closest competitor.
In a familiar pattern, U.S. op-ed pages shrieked in horror about Venezuelan aid to the Sandinistas while ignoring the Bush administration’s interference in Nicaragua’s electoral process. In a Boston Herald op-ed (whose subtitle stated that Fidel Castro’s “jackboots” may be “filled by Chávez”), Heritage Foundation senior fellow Peter Brookes lamented that Chávez was supporting “Sandinista retread” Ortega (8/3/06).
In a commentary in the San Diego Union-Tribune (6/30/06), Jeremy Martin—director of the Energy Program at the University of California-San Diego’s Institute of the Americas—singled out Chávez for meddling in Nicaragua’s electoral process while completely ignoring the Bush administration’s more heavy-handed interference. (According to Carlos Chamorro, a prominent Nicaraguan journalist who was quoted in the Washington Post on July 23, 2006, the Venezuelan ambassador in Nicaragua “keeps a very low profile,” whereas the U.S. ambassador there “behaves like a political actor who opines almost every day on who should be president.”)
Accusing Chávez of “bullying his way into other countries’ affairs,” the Hartford Courant (6/8/06) asserted that “the Venezuelan leader’s offer of lower-priced oil to municipal governments controlled by the Sandinistas is not playing well among many Nicaraguans.”
Never did it occur to Brookes, Martin or the Courant that Chávez’s offer might provide significant social and economic relief to Nicaraguans. As the Christian Science Monitor reported (5/5/06), the oil deal was negotiated amidst a “grinding energy crisis” in Nicaragua, characterized by “power-rationing blackouts and transportation strikes.” The Washington Post reported (7/23/06) that the deal to “sell oil to Nicaragua under a long-term credit scheme” was “intended to free more government funds for social spending.”
The commentaries in the Herald, Union-Tribune and Courant also neglected to point out that the Bush administration has not offered comparable assistance to Nicaragua, a point that is aptly illustrated by the Monitor’s quote from Ortega (5/5/06):
In a classic case of U.S. political elites projecting their own behavior onto Chávez, the Washington Post (6/3/06) editorial board described Chávez, not Bush, as an “imperialist specter” in Latin America. The Post might do well to take a history lesson from Paraguayan President Nicanor Duarte. When a BBC interviewer (6/7/06) suggested to Duarte that Chávez engaged in imperialism, Duarte responded:
A cursory glance at hemispheric “aid” flows sheds light on who’s really engaged in imperialism. As the San Francisco Chronicle (9/25/06) recently reported, well over half of U.S. government “aid” to Latin America is “military-related.”
In an atypically sober Washington Post op-ed (8/6/06), the Council on Foreign Relation’s Julia Sweig noted that the “lion’s share” of U.S. military “assistance” for Latin America goes to Colombia, whose “human rights climate remains disproportionately cruel to journalists, trade unionists and Afro-Colombians.” Sweig cited Colombia as yet another example of how U.S. administrations prop up Latin America’s “traditional economic and political elites,” who are “disconnected from the region’s new realities” but nonetheless confirm Washington’s “worldview.”
Sweig suggests that while Venezuela puts up the cash to “send Cuban doctors to treat the region’s most impoverished,” Washington allies itself with Latin America’s “English-speaking wealthy set,” who invariably resist meaningful social reforms that imply sacrifices on their own part.
Only in the editorial boardrooms of a corporate propaganda machine could this scenario be read as Chávez replacing Bush as “the imperialist specter.”
Justin Delacour is a freelance writer with a master’s degree in Latin American studies.