October 9, 2012 · 4 Comments
By Murray Polner:
Whatever New York Times readers may think about Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, the Times itself has no doubts. Simply stated, they don’t like the man. (See, for example, NYTeXaminer, and Gregory Wilpert’s “New York Times Meets Venezuelan Opposition and Smiles,” Feb. 21, 2012). Their bias has never been clearer as the recent Venezuelan election shows.
Two days before Venezuelans went to the polls the paper opened fire with a front page piece by William Neuman. Given the chilling head “Fear of Losing Benefits Affects Venezuela vote” the election was mistakenly portrayed as “a race that is too close to call” with Chavez seen as “vulnerable as never before” (Chavez won by 54.4-44.9%, a winning margin Obama and Romney would love). It adds that Chavez “runs a well-oiled patronage system, a Tammany-Hall operation, but on a national scale”—a practice obviously unknown in American politics. Neuman also interviewed Chavez’s opponent Henrique Capriles Radonski.
Now Capriles may well be the pro-American, moderate and tolerant democrat the Times favors, though it never scrutinizes his views, his allies, and how he feels about Chavez’s reforms and whether or not he would shut them down. The front page article never asks what special interests paid for both candidates’ expensive campaigns and also overlooks U.S. support for the 2002 military coup against Chavez.
Not to be outdone, the piece was followed up on the same day with “How Hugo Chavez Became Irrelevant,” an Op Ed by Françisco Toro, a Venezuelan journalist and political scientist. In it, he campaigns for Caprile, celebrating him as a Brazilian-style center-left man, “committed to ending the Chavez era’s authoritarian excesses.” Among other claims he makes is that child deaths “have not improved any faster under his government than they did over several decades before he rose to power,” a statement interpreted otherwise by the UK’s Guardian in its October 4th issue. Poverty and joblessness too, they say, have been reduced though crime has risen. What is true are serious questions about the freedom to dissent. Still, in laying out the ideological case against Chavez, Toro states that Barack Obama’s election “badly undermined the [Latin American] radicals’ ability to rally opposition to gringo imperialism.” But did it? Obama’s questionable policy regarding coups was disregarded with the overthrow in 2009 of Honduras’s democratically elected president, a revolt denounced by every country south of the border while Washington remained silent and supportive. “They really thought he was different,” said Julia Sweig of the Council on Foreign Relations at the time, referring to Latin American opinion of Obama. “But those hopes were dashed over the summer.” The U.S. also has seven bases including the Palanquero AFB in Colombia, the better to observe any leftist Latin American government that dares defy Uncle Sam.
What the Times also avoided is the extent to which Chavez has actually changed—or did not change—Venezuela. What has really happened to unemployment rates, the level of poverty, crime, infant mortality, the freedom to differ and dissent? Nor did the Times bother to examine the election’s underlying issues—as the UK’s Guardian’s Jonathan Watts astutely did before the election: “On a global level, Sunday’s election is about who controls and distributes one of the world’s biggest recoverable oil reserves. For ideologues it is a frontline battle between Bolivarian socialism and neoliberalism. But for most Venezuelan voters, it’s about safety, fairness and a character who arguably inspires more love and hate than almost any other politician in the world.”
In contrast to Toro’s Op Ed, consider that Brazil’s former president Luis Inacio Lula de Silva, whom he rightly praises, is quoted elsewhere as saying that Chavez’s victory would demonstrate the ongoing political changes in Latin America. Then there is yet another democratic leader, the Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who tweeted Chavez (according to the BBC) after he won: “Your victory is our victory! And the victory of South America and the Caribbean.”
What the paper needs to explain, fairly and objectively, if it can, is whether or not Chavez has improved or damaged the lives of Venezuelans and why he was re-elected in an unquestionably free and democratic election, too often an historical rarity in Latin American elections. Slightly more than 80% of the electorate bothered to show up to vote—about half the percentage of voters who bother to go to the polls in our presidential elections.
Tibisay Lucena, who chairs the country’s Comejo Nacional Electoral, which was constitutionally established in 1999 to oversee elections, put it best in the Washington Post: “To participate in an electoral process like this one, in democracy, is a victory for the whole people of Venezuela. The entire country has won.”
Murray Polner has written for many publications. His most recent book, written with Thomas Woods Jr., is “We Who Dared Say No To War”.