Hugo Chávez, as a number of us expected, won the Venezuelan presidential election in yet another landslide yesterday: 55.1% to his opponent Henrique Capriles’s 44.2%.
To understand why Chávez’s electoral victory would be apparent beforehand, consider that from 1980 to 1998, Venezuela’s per capita GDP declined by 14%, whereas since 2004, after the Chávez administration gained control over the nation’s oil revenues, the country’s GDP growth per person has averaged 2.5% each year.
At the same time, income inequality was reduced to the lowest in Latin America, and a combination of widely shared growth and government programs cut poverty in half and reduced absolute poverty by 70%—and that’s before accounting for vastly expanded access to health, education, and housing.
However, the establishment media broadly anticipated that yesterday’s election would be a repudiation of the Chávez administration’s policies. Consider The Guardian headline, “Hugo Chávez: A Strongman's Last Stand,” for example. To be sure, if Chávez were to win, the press explained, it could be chalked up to a climate of fear and repression or voter suppression. Even with a tight victory, his now-anemic support would still augur the beginning of the end to a failed, 14-year experiment.
Inconveniently for this narrative, over 19 million people in a country of 29 million were registered to vote, and any supposed intimidation did not prevent a historic turnout of 81%. With 96% of the votes counted, the country’s National Electoral Council has shown that Chávez has thus far received 1.5 million more votes than Capriles. And the electoral system’s credentials are sterling—Jimmy Carter, who received a Nobel Peace Prize for his democracy-promotion work with the Carter Center after his presidency, commended the record of Venezuela’s voting process a month before the elections:
Although some people have criticized the result—which is Hugo Chavez having won—there’s no doubt in our mind, having monitored very closely the election process, that he won fairly and squarely. As a matter of fact, of the 92 elections that we’ve monitored, I would say that the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world. They have a very wonderful voting system…
This, apparently, wasn’t as newsworthy as the inane question of whether Venezuela is a dictatorship. A LexisNexis search for all English-language news containing the terms “Jimmy Carter” and “Venezuela” between September 11, when Carter made those comments, and October 7, returned 45 results. In that same time period, 78 news items mentioning both the terms “Hugo Chavez” and “dictator” appeared. (To be fair, some of the 78 pieces refuted the notion that Chávez is a dictator, but even these articles are a reflection of the pervasiveness of the nonsensical topic.)
This contrast in the media’s priorities is symptomatic of the overwhelmingly disgraceful portrayal of Venezuela’s elections. The Hall of Shame that follows is a sampling of some of the most typical distortions, gratuitous slurs, and incorrect predictions that readers have been exposed to over the past few weeks:
• In a Saturday editorial, The Washington Post falsely attributed the question, “If Hugo Chavez is an autocrat, how could he be in danger of losing the Venezuelan presidency in an election on Sunday?” to economist Mark Weisbrot, “one of Mr. Chavez’s dwindling band of American supporters.” In fact, Weisbrot energetically argued, using statistical analysis of polling data, that there was virtually no chance that Chávez was in danger of losing. The editorial went on to compare Chávez to Putin and Ahmadinejad, incorrectly claiming that Chávez controls “most television channels.” In actuality, the BBC reported that “some 70% of Venezuela’s radio and TV stations are in private hands,” while “just under 5% are state-owned.” The Post misleadingly asserted that “many voters, too, are intimidated by high-tech polling machines that read their fingerprints; polls show that they suspect their votes will not be secret.” But whether these fears are well-founded was left unanswered. The editorial board ignored the Carter Center’s report on the technical features of Venezuela’s voting system, which concluded that “this concern has no basis…The software of the voting machines guarantees the secrecy of the vote.” Finally, the Post ended its editorial by conjuring up a menacing hypothetical scenario: “Venezuela’s neighbors, and the Obama administration, should be ready to react if [Chávez] attempts to remain in power by force.” Never mind that during the elections Chávez repeatedly said, “We will recognize the results, whatever they are,” and previously demonstrated this when, after losing a referendum vote in 2007, he publicly stated, “I congratulate my adversaries for this victory.”
• Jon Lee Anderson, writing for The New Yorker’s News Desk, erroneously declared that “Venezuela leads Latin America in homicides.” That distinction actually goes to Honduras, which leads the world in per capita homicides. But a mention of this would have been off message, as Honduras’s illegitimate post-coup regime receives $50 million a year in arms and training from the United States for its repressive security forces. And unlike in Venezuela, being an opposition activist in Honduras carries a significant chance of being disappeared or killed. Anderson continues by predicting that, irrespective of the election’s outcome, “this will probably represent the final eclipse of the long, heady reality show that his leadership has become.” Capriles “or someone else like him,” says Anderson, can “carry on with the task of making Venezuela a fairer and safer society.” His piece (originally titled, “The End of Chavez?,” but quietly revised to “Chavez The Survivor”) concludes with a quote from a journalist who ponders the prospect of a defeat for Chávez, while also using the term “autocrat” in reference to him—somehow, a ruler who by definition has absolute power can also be defeated in a competitive election. This is not the first time that Anderson has obscured the differences between democratically elected leaders and actual autocrats: he once lumped Haiti’s ousted president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, with the country’s Duvalier dictators—in Anderson’s rendering, they were all “despots and cheats.”
• The New York Times, a day before the election, ran an op-ed with the instantly dated headline, “How Hugo Chávez Became Irrelevant.” Its author, Francisco Toro, offers a confused attempt to separate Latin America’s left into “radical revolutionary regimes”—Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Cuba—and a “more moderate set of leaders”: Brazil, Uruguay, and Guatemala. In Toro’s account, apparently, Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, a School of the Americas-trained special forces officer once in charge of counterinsurgency operations under military dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, is now one of the left-leaning Latin American leaders who do not turn “their backs on democratic institutions.” Toro also contends, without providing evidence, that “behind closed doors,” Brazilians “sneer” at Chávez. While it is impossible to refute such a claim, it is worth noting the effusiveness with which, at least publicly, former Brazilian president Lula Da Silva endorsed Chávez’s reelection bid in July. In a video statement, Da Silva said: “Chavez, count on me…Your victory will be ours… and thanks, comrade, for everything you have done for Latin America.”
• The Times also ran an October 5 news article by William Neuman, reporting that a young law student intended to vote for Chávez for fear that voting on a secret ballot for her preferred candidate, Capriles, would expose her to professional retribution. As the Center for Economic and Policy Research found, however, a quick search on Twitter showed that the law student had no qualms about publicly uploading a photo of herself kissing a poster of Capriles. (William Neuman might be remembered as the author of a Times piece on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, which bizarrely claimed that Assange “had refused to flush the toilet during his entire stay” at the Ecuadorian embassy in London. The sentence was later erased on the Times' website with no explanation.)
• And as a final example (even though there are countless more articles to criticize), one of the most glaring acts of journalistic misconduct within the mainstream press appeared in U.S. News & World Report. Other prominent media outlets have taken some small steps to veil their denunciations against Chávez. U.S. News & World Report was much more brazen: it published a news, not opinion, article by Seth Cline on October 1 that put Venezuela’s “fair and free elections” in quotation marks but offered no scare-quotes in its very first sentence, which introduces the reader to “President Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan dictator.”
Bloomberg Businessweek published a 994-word report by Charlie Devereux last evening on Bloomberg.com, following the election. Surprisingly, the piece included this paragraph:
Under Chavez, poverty fell to 31.6 percent at the end of 2011 from about 50 percent when he first took office, according to the national statistics institute. Extreme poverty declined to 8.5 percent from about 20 percent over the same period. Venezuela has the lowest level of inequality in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to the United Nations.
Today, however, a reworked 960-word article, now co-authored by Charlie Devereux and Alexander Cuadros, occupies the original hyperlink at Bloomberg.com. The segment above on poverty and inequality has been eliminated (although it can be still be found in a version republished on the website of the San Fransico Chronicle).
Update 2 (10-9):
I had meant to debunk an important falsehood in Francisco Toro’s October 5 New York Times op-ed yesterday. His argument hinges on “Brazil’s remarkable success in reducing poverty,” which obviates the need to join Chávez’s “radical axis.” He incorrectly maintains:
Chávez-style socialism looks like the worst of both worlds: both more authoritarian and less effective at reducing poverty than the Brazilian alternative.
In reality, the data for the two countries’ respective poverty reductions show exactly the opposite. World Bank figures confirm this using any number of criteria:
Readers wishing to contact the editors at The New York Times, Washington Post, The New Yorker or Bloomberg News may do so by clicking the links provided.
Update 3 (10-13)
I related some of the problems with mainstream coverage of the Venezuelan elections on CounterSpin, an excellent weekly radio program produced by the media watchgroup Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting. It can be heard on radio stations across the United States this week, as well as online on FAIR.org's website or by podcast.
Keane Bhatt is an activist in Washington, D.C. He has worked in the United States and Latin America on a variety of campaigns related to community development and social justice. His analyses and opinions have appeared in a range of outlets, including NPR, The Nation, The St. Petersburg Times and CNN En Español. He is the author of the NACLA blog “Manufacturing Contempt,” which critically analyzes the U.S. press and its portrayal of the hemisphere. Follow his blog on Twitter @KeaneBhatt