Corporate U.S. media outlets have long gone out of their way to attack democracy in Venezuela ever since the 1998 election of former President Hugo Chavez.
Chavez’s crime was making Venezuela “the threat of a good example” by turning his back on neoliberalism, confronting U.S. hegemony in a region Washington disparagingly referred to as its “backyard,” while helping create the conditions for the current “pink tide” of left-wing Latin American leaders to be elected.
After Chavez’s untimely death, one might argue the foreign media ratcheted up its belligerent coverage of the South American nation. The Washington Post editorial board, for instance, in September 2014 tastelessly called his successor President Nicolas Maduro an “economically illiterate former bus driver.”
Now that Venezuela is experiencing economic woes, affected by economic sabotage carried out by the right-wing, Washington-backed opposition, and political unrest after renewed calls for street protests and undemocratic regime change, the foreign media is once again, and predictably, providing the world with hostile and inaccurate coverage. Some of the repeat offenders in the United States includes the New York Times, Time, the Washington Post, Reuters and Bloomberg news, among others.
Two of the main indicators of this bias is how the media frame Venezuela’s main political actors, who they choose to use as official sources, and how they frame stories.
“Venezuela is a country where the people most likely to be sources for U.S. media – the educated, affluent elite – have seen a relative decline in power since the emergence of Chavismo. One would expect this group to be generally unhappy about this political trend and to convey this unhappiness to their contacts in US media,” Jim Naureckas, editor of FAIR.org (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), told teleSUR.
The U.S. media goes beyond simply quoting the elite, however. Opposition leaders Henrique Capriles, Leopoldo Lopez and Maria Corina Machado are consistently used as sources and framed in a positive light, despite the history of involvement in illegal attempts to oust the governemnt, with the latter two have both been charged with trying to violently overthrow the current government.
Lopez has been charged with inciting violence after organizing anti-government protests in February 2014, when 43 people were killed as a result. Machado was indicted in November for her alleged involvement in a conspiracy to overthrow Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, after emails sent from her account were found stating plans to “annihilate” the president.
Henrique Capriles, a two-time unsuccessful presidential candidate, is portrayed as the “less radical” opposition leader, according to Reuters. However, Capriles has consistently called on the Venezuelan people to take to the streets because of failed electoral attempts, while also calling the current economic crisis in the country “the perfect storm” and the “perfect moment to change the government.” In fact, after losing the election in 2013 Capriles told supporters “to vent your anger” over his loss, a call that resulted in the deaths of 13 Venezuelans.
All three leaders are depicted in the U.S. media as part of a democratic opposition, yet all three of them refuse to recognize the democratically-elected government and seek to change it through undemocratic means. According to experts, these media frames go hand-in-hand with Washington policy objectives, namely a change of government by any means necessary--including a coup.
“It's hard to overstate the role of the U.S. government's foreign policy apparatus in setting the tone for U.S. media coverage of other countries,” Naureckas told teleSUR. “The US embassy is always a key source that has tremendous power to set the agenda for coverage – determining what the important issues are in any given country. A significant reporter who didn't follow the embassy's lead would likely start to get flack from editors back home, who would be hearing from the State Department that their coverage was missing the ‘real story’.”
Steve Ellner, long time analyst of Venezuelan history and politics, and author of “Latin America’s Radical Left: Challenges and Complexities of Political Power in the Twenty-First Century,” also said the U.S. media has been belligerent toward the socialist Venezuelan state for years.
“The corporate media to a great extent marches in lockstep with U.S. policy objectives. Its attempt to delegitimize the Venezuelan government reinforces Washington’s hostility toward Venezuela which dates back to the early days of the (George W.) Bush administration,” Ellner told teleSUR.
The Washington Post’s editorial board, indignant over President Barack Obama’s recent decision to normalize relations with Cuba, felt the need to use this progressive development to take a shot at Caracas in a Dec. 26 editorial. The Post, which still looks at the world through a Cold War geopolitical lens, titled their screed,“Faced with Economic and Social Collapse, Venezuela Should end Repressive Policies.”
“Repression in Venezuela has steadily escalated this year: More than 40 people were killed when security forces cracked down against opposition street protests,” the Post wrote. This is an example of the newspaper creating a false impression that the government was responsible for all of those deaths, something the New York Times has also been guilty of falsely reporting, which has been proven not to be the case. On the contrary, it was the actions of violent right-wing opposition protesters that caused the majority of deaths.
The Washington Post goes on to chastise Maduro for not turning to the United States, stating that, “Rather than seeking to improve relations with the country most able to supply fresh investment, the Venezuelan ruler has expelled U.S. diplomats.”
Never mind that the United States has consistently sought to undermine Venezuelan democracy, including backing a failed military coup attempt in 2002.
Within the same article, however, the author calls President Maduro’s government a “failing regime” and demands that it make “meaningful concessions on democracy and human rights.” This is a hypocritical argument given that the newspaper is editorially supporting aggressive right-wing efforts to topple a democratically-elected government.
“The corporate media to a great extent marches in lockstep with U.S. policy objectives. Its attempt to delegitimize the Venezuelan government reinforces Washington’s hostility toward Venezuela which dates back to the early days of the (George W.) Bush administration.”
But the Washington Post is not unique to this media malpractice. Other media outlets have used a similar formula of exclusively framing stories around right-wing opposition voices and perspectives.
The Agence France-Presse, or AFP, a Paris-based global news agency whose articles are heavily circulated by U.S. media, quoted Machado extensively in one article (Thousands March in Venezuela Over Economic Crisis, Shortages, Jan. 24), where the opposition figure “insisted that constitutional order – waiting for Maduro to be voted out – ‘cannot wait,’” implying a need for a coup. In the same article, the AFP also blames the shortages of certain food stuffs on “Maduro's refusal to overhaul the increasingly state-managed economy.”. In total, the article cites five anti-government sources, three of which were Machado herself and the other two a local protester, while citing zero pro-government voices.
Other news outlets (Bloomberg Jan 14, Reuters Jan. 16, The Associated Press Jan. 16) have also emphasized the opposition viewpoint that “the time for change has come.” The Guardian even referred to the combative Capriles in a Jan. 16 article as “Venezuela’s most conciliatory opposition leader.” Never mind Capriles, like Lopez and Machado, has called for extraconstitutional efforts to change the democratically-elected government.
These kinds of statements, and omissions inevitably frame and distort the reality in Venezuela in two ways: that the country’s economic woes are the fault of President Maduro alone, thus supporting right-wing attempts to oust him; and the situation is an indication of socialism failing, a perspective advanced by Washington policymakers who would like to see Venezuela return to the days of neoliberalism when U.S. corporations were given carte blanche to plunder the country’s natural resources, namely oil.
In January, President Maduro went on an international tour to try to overturn a recent OPEC decision to not protect oil prices by not curbing production, a decision that will hurt major oil exporting countries dependent on oil revenues, especially ones that the U.S. has antagonistic relationships with. The AP interpreted Maduro’s tour as an indication of Venezuela’s failed governing structure, rather than being a victim of international markets that Washington, with allies like Saudi Arabia in the case of OPEC, can manipulate. Out of the six citations in the article, the first two were directly anti-Caracas and criticize the Venezuelan economy since former President Chavez assumed the presidency in 1999. The last four quotes are directly anti-Maduro.
The agency quotes a “Caracas-based political consultant” who said,"For 15 years, we've been hearing that the country is collapsing. But never before have we had an economic, political and social crisis at the same time.” (Venezuela Crisis Deepens as Maduro Seeks Support Abroad Jan 16).
They also quote an apparent Chavez expert, and author of a 2004 biography of the former leader, Alberto Barrera Tyszka, a poet and novelist, who equates Chavez and socialism with authoritarian governance, without proof or context.
“The true ideology of Chavismo is a single number: the price of oil … Now that the money is running out, the only way to stay in power is by reducing democracy — more controls, more censorship, more repression.”
These kinds of statements completely ignore the positive developments in Venezuela throughout the years since Chavez was elected and started carrying out more socialist policies, such as reducing poverty in half and extreme poverty by two-thirds. However, as FAIR’s Naureckas points out, the U.S. media often serves in the interests of Washington’s agenda.
“Democracy is the central myth of US foreign policy — Washington's actions abroad are generally justified as being in accord with the will of the people affected. So when the US opposes a popular government, its popularity needs to be diminished or denied,” said Naureckas. “The government's persistent popularity as demonstrated by a long string of electoral victories is nearly always missing from US corporate media coverage. And the economic gains, especially for the poor, under the Bolivarian revolution are frequently denied or distorted.”
While it can’t be denied that Venezuela is currently experiencing economic challenges, both of these dominant media frames also drastically oversimplify the complex political and economic factors driving the country’s current circumstances.
Bloomberg news, a major business and financial news organization, consistently oversimplifies Venezuela’s economic situation.
The news organization has been following stories of shortages and opposition protests in Venezuela, but rarely offer a pro-Maduro perspective. Bloomberg published an article Jan. 24 under the subheading “Blaming Others,” Bloomberg explained that “Maduro blamed ‘criminal gangs,’ ‘economic sabotage’ and private business interests for food shortages and spiraling prices.”
However, these comments are passed off as claims, despite evidence that both hoarding and contraband trafficked to Colombia are very real problems that contribute to shortages in the country. As teleSUR reported in January, several warehouses linked to the right-wing opposition have been discovered stockpiling and hoarding massive amounts of essential goods, including diapers, toilet paper, cleaning supplies and other essentials. In some cases, these warehouses have been connected to companies owned by opposition party members. In fact, photos of the hoarded goods have been made public, as teleSUR has demonstrated. Nevertheless, the mainstream media, staying true to form, has chosen to ignore these visuals and instead feature only photographs of empty supermarket shelves, blaming the scarcity solely on government economic policies.
“The MSM (mainstream media) or corporate media focuses on the complaints of Venezuelans waiting on long lines. This is quite easy to do, since Venezuelans are understandably very upset about the situation,” Ellner told teleSUR. “By concentrating on these scenes, without discussing the measures that the Venezuelan government is employing to counter contraband and hoarding, the media leaves the impression that the Chavista government is incompetent, at best.”
“Venezuela is a country where the people most likely to be sources for U.S. media – the educated, affluent elite – have seen a relative decline in power since the emergence of Chavismo.”
As we mark the one year anniversary of the the opposition’s violent street actions in Venezuela, there are dangers of the opposition repeating patterns of brutality and more potential bloodshed. Once again, high-profile opposition figures have been calling for protests and encouraging acts of sedition, which has already led to renewed street violence.
The international community, particularly the U.S. and other Western media, are aiding and abetting these schemes through continued skewed coverage of Venezuela’s internal affairs by supporting Washington-backed opposition viewpoints. This serves to embolden an opposition determined to eschew peaceful and democratic means of policy and political change.
Julia Buxton, Professor of Comparative Politics at the Central European University in Budapest, also advises to be weary of Venezuela’s portrayal in international news media.
“I expect that the media and coverage will be dictated by vociferous right-wing elements of the opposition due to their networks of influence and the intensive lobbying across the U.S., Latin America and Europe that they have been engaged in,” Buxton told teleSUR. “This will be to the detriment of centrist and electorally oriented opposition groups.”
At this time, it is imperative that the public seek out alternative viewpoints and examine Venezuelan coverage with a critical eye. “Finding alternative sources … is more critical than usual with the Venezuela story,” added FAIR’s Jim Naureckas.