It isn't easy to find U.S. press coverage of Venezuela that isn't colored to some extent by the official U.S. distaste for President Hugo Chávez and his populist policies. Coverage of Venezuela's recent referendum (12/2/07) on proposed constitutional amendments was no exception. In the wake of the narrow defeat of the reforms by a national vote, viewers could find Chris Matthews and Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC's Hardball (12/4/07) crowing that Chávez "getting it thrown back in his face this week" made them feel like "it's Christmas three weeks early."
CounterSpin host Janine Jackson interviewed Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, to help sort through the myths in media coverage of the referendum.
CounterSpin: Hugo Chávez plus U.S. corporate media pretty much equals misinformation at this point [Extra!, 11=12/06], so let's just dig in. Matters of tone aside, what were the most salient things you saw the press corps get wrong about this referendum process?
Mark Weisbrot: First of all, I think they grossly exaggerated the impact that it would have had if it did pass. I mean, most of the things in there--positive things for sure--social security; pensions for the informal sector, which is 40 percent of the labor force; the free university education--those could be passed in the legislature. It wasn’t going to turn the country into a dictatorship or anything like that.
And, I mean, I don't favor the bad stuff that was in there. But nobody mentioned that the government has never declared a state of emergency--even during the oil strike of 2002=03, which really crippled the economy, and would have led to special measures being taken here in the United States; you know, if we had a strike that destroyed the economy, we have three sets of labor law that would have put people in jail. The government in Venezuela under Chávez didn't arrest anybody, just let the strike run its course. He also has had the power to rule by executive order since the beginning of this year, and hasn’t used it except against foreign oil companies.
There is a track record there, so it really wasn't any surprise when Chávez conceded when they didn’t even have 90 percent of the votes counted, and he said "congratulations" to the opposition, "you won." And it's looking like the margin is going to narrow even more. It's looking like it's going to be closer to 50.1 or 50.2 percent, not the 50.7 that they reported when they had 86 percent of the ballots counted.
And Chávez didn't even care. He pretty much said that. He wasn't interested in challenging it, as it would have been challenged in most countries. Because he was looking for a mandate for the changes, and he didn't get that. He wasn't interested in winning by a small margin. And that’s the kind of thing that didn’t come out in the media at all. Because they're always trying to portray this as an authoritarian state, an authoritarian government.
You know, it really isn't. It's more of a weak state, and that’s why, even with the concentration of power in the executive that you have had some of, you still don’t have an executive that's as strong as in the United States. And even if these measures strengthening the powers of the state during a state of emergency would have passed, the worst kinds of things that we've had in the United States in terms of infringement of civil liberties in the past few years would not have been allowed in Venezuela.
CS: Let me ask you about the widespread use of the phrase--or language like it-- "president for life." "Chávez wanted to be president for life." Now when I say widespread, I mean this was used by ABC News, CBS, NBC, PBS's NewsHour, CNN, MSNBC, NPR--and then I stopped looking. What is your response to that language?
MW: Yes, kind of a grossly exaggerated description of simply removing term limits-- which they don’t have in England, Germany, France or most of Europe. It is important to distinguish between that and "president for life." I mean, people would have to reelect him each term. And, in fact, they also have the right--which nobody else has in the world--to recall the president halfway through his term, which they tried to do in 2004.
CS: The news coverage would give you a kind of misunderstanding, I believe, of the source of these elements--as if Chávez had written all of these himself. But, in fact, there was a process behind the creation of the elements of this referendum, right?
MW: That’s right. The National Assembly had a whole block of amendments that they passed. And some of the bad stuff was in there, too. Chávez did not even have the right to veto that; that had to go to the electorate. So the whole thing was a constitutional process. And that's always ignored. The media really does create this impression that it's authoritarian. And they do this a lot through just innuendo. Like Reuters, in particular--they cannot describe the government without saying "ally of Communist Cuba and Iran."
I mean, you could describe the United States, if you wanted, as the major foreign investor in Communist China. But that's not how it's normally described. This is done over and over and over again. You give people the idea that Venezuela is somehow like Cuba. And they never mention the media there, how much of it is still campaigns against the government--the bulk of the media, even though the government now has an edge in TV. I'm not even sure they have a bigger audience in TV, because their TV stations don't have as big an audience as the private ones. It's kind of a cartoon version that you get here in the United States.
CS: It's actually been interesting to see how some of the kind of now-standard elements in U.S. coverage of Chávez actually shifted without acknowledgement here. Before the referendum, we saw stories about how the vote was questionable. NBC News reported [12/2/07] that there were serious concerns because "election results are being fed in electronically over the state-run phone system." No comment on that. In general, what with Chávez being a dictator, there was the sense that it couldn't possibly be a fair process, but then those concerns evaporated with the referendum's defeat.
Also on the media, there was a line in an L.A. Times story that noted that opposition political leaders fought for face time during jubilant television interviews after the vote. Which must have made some readers think, well, wait a minute, we always heard that there wasn't any critical media in Venezuela, because Chávez had silenced them all. So it sort of shifted.
Let's look forward now. The Boston Globe [12/4/07] had it that "Democracy Stirs in Venezuela." Tucker Carlson on MSNBC [12/3/07] suggested that Venezuela might be "moving back toward democracy." What do people with a more grounded sense of Venezuelan politics think that the impact may actually be?
MW: Well, that's interesting. I actually would agree, but for different reasons. I think it is a positive development for democracy, but it's the opposition that has refused to play by the rules of the game for most of the last eight years, not the government. So the opposition tried every possible means, extra-legal means, to get rid of the government, including a military coup and an oil strike that devastated the economy in 2002=03.
And then, finally, when all that failed, they participated in the recall referendum in 2004. As soon as they lost that, they said it was a fraud, which of course was ridiculous; they lost 58 to 41, and they have a system there which is extremely secure. So then they boycotted the 2005 national assembly elections on the basis of this alleged fraud, which was certified by the Organization of American States and the Carter Center. So they participated in the 2006 presidential elections. There was a faction that wanted to claim fraud there, too. They lost 63=37, so they didn't do that. And then there was a faction, and very significant at first, that wanted to [boycott the referendum]; it was not clear at all they were going to participate.
So there's this whole kind of extra-constitutional, insurrectionary opposition that is very, very powerful, and to the extent that we have more democracy there going forward, it would be because the world has seen that this is a fair electoral system and that they may be kind of forced to participate in it now, rather than just boycott and try and sell the world this cartoon version that it's some kind of dictatorship.