Beyond the Media Hysteria on Hugo Chávez

The book Hugo! The Hugo Chávez Story from Mud Hut to Perpetual Revolution offers a remarkably sober portrait of the Venezuelan leader. Part personal history, political drama, media critique, and an analysis of misguided U.S. foreign policy, the book is a badly needed, reality-based antidote to media hysteria and its cartoonish portrayals of the Venezuelan leader.

May 11, 2009

I have never been a big reader of biographies. They have often seemed to me the literary arm of our Great Man society, the product of our most unfortunate and idol-indulging tendencies. But some people do play outsized roles in history. Their images become proxies for larger ideological, social and cultural debates – often to the point of caricature.

A good biography can take on this echo chamber residuum and tell a more reality-based story. In the case of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, this is a politically necessary task.

The New York Times editorial board claims Chávez aids guerrillas. Ethically challenged televangelist Pat Robertson called for his assassination. And when talking heads aren’t calling him a terrorist, they take up the Venezuelan right wing’s cartoonish image of Chávez as hyperbolic and verbose buffoon. Admittedly, recent conservative attempts to provoke hysteria over the Chávez-Obama handshake at the Summit of the Americas seem to have fallen flat.

Conservative talk radio and mainstream media have eagerly spilled copious ink cataloguing Chávez’s sins. Meanwhile, far less attention is given to President Álvaro Uribe and the Colombian political establishment’s ties to right-wing paramilitaries, who actually kill their political opponents. A comparative Lexis-Nexis study on the subject would be enlightening.

In Hugo! The Hugo Chávez Story from Mud Hut to Perpetual Revolution, Bart Jones renders a remarkably sober portrait of the Venezuelan leader, whose “life story is the stuff of Hollywood, a Lincoln-like rise from poverty to power... with a Venezuelan twist.” Jones lived in Venezuela from 1992 to 2000, working initially as a Maryknoll lay missioner and then as a foreign correspondent for The Associated Press. Jones’ book is based on thorough research and extensive interviews, including four hours with Chávez himself.

Hugo! is a personal history, a political drama, a media critique and an analysis of wrong-headed, U.S. foreign policy – in fact, a Cold War redux.

Jones takes on mainstream media coverage of Chávez and explains the Bolivarian Revolution’s victories – and thus its high level of public support. Hugo! acknowledges that Chávez is a leader with serious faults who at times appears to play into his adversaries’ hands, but methodically knocks down the charge that he is a dictator.

Jones writes that most international reporters “simply ‘parachuted’ in to the country for periodic assignments, checked in at five-star hotels, and spent much of their time hobnobbing with the elites and trading observations with one another. Venezuela expert Julia Buxton called it the ‘Hilton Hotel’ brand of journalism. Even many of those stationed full-time in the country were more connected to the upper and middle classes than to the working class barrios, where some rarely ventured.” By contrast, Jones spent years living in a poor barrio. “Objectivity” is strongly influenced by where and with whom a journalist is embedded.

The U.S. media’s default anti-Chávez hysteria was put on spectacular display by the Judith Miller-esque credulity during Colombia’s magic laptop intelligence fiasco. The laptops that Colombia ostensibly found at the site of the March 1, 2008, bombing of a FARC rebel camp in Ecuadoran territory led to charges that the governments in Caracas and Quito were supporting the rebels. The Colombian government knew that a story about Chávez as a troublemaker would fly in the U.S. press – and so they spun it. Unfortunately, there was no independent or credible verification of the laptops’ source or content. But they served Uribe’s purposes.

The mainstream press focuses on certain Latin American images like berets, a fist-shaking "strongman" at the podium, and military fatigues, which are political markers meant to stoke uneasiness among foreign audiences. They are the iconic equivalents of the turban and headscarf in media coverage of the Middle East. Hugo! goes beyond these hysterical superficies. Jones’ criticism of U.S. media coverage is a remarkable feat for a former AP correspondent.

Jones disproval of the idea that Chávez is a dictator is important. That silliness has to be gotten out of the way for serious debate and reflection on the Bolivarian Revolution’s advances and errors to be possible. Constant charges of Chávez being a dictator and counter assertions that he’s not have limited discussion, including on the left.

Perhaps the most compelling charge for some progressives was Chávez’s decision, in May 2007, to not renew the RCTV television network’s broadcast license. The opposition jumped at the chance to reinforce their chosen framing of events – civil society resisting a free speech repressing autocrat. But Jones explains:

The refusal to renew the RCTV license was not simply bare-faced censorship but based on the network’s history of refusing to pay taxes and fines to the government and, most damningly, its blatant support for and participation in the April 2002 coup against Chávez and the oil strike later that year. The network conducted itself in a manner—inciting people to overthrow a democratically elected president—that would not last two minutes with the FCC in the United States. It took Chávez’s government five years to shut it down, although it was still free to operate on cable or by satellite dish.

In the United States, these actions could be considered treason, a crime punishable by death under U.S. law.

Jones vivid descriptions of Chávez’s 1992 coup attempt and the short-lived 2002 coup against Chávez are the book’s most engaging. The moment-by-moment narratives are gripping and expose the events’ complex underlying political dynamics.

Jones does an excellent job in showing how the Venezuelan mainstream media –especially television – worked hand in hand with the Venezuelan opposition to overthrow Chávez, in what some have called the world’s first “media coup.” The Venevisión station prerecorded an announcement that chavistas had shot and killed opposition marchers before that day’s protests had even begun. (Once demonstrations began, opposition marchers were actually shot by rooftop snipers, almost certainly opposition coup-plotters seeking to radicalize its own camp.) When chavistas poured into the streets demanding their President back, the TV stations ran cartoons. Jones also points to the U.S. government’s quick support of the coup leaders and their probable involvement.

Jones’ prose strikes the right balance between in-depth journalism and powerful, narrative description. Hugo! is a real pleasure, and readers should not be intimated by the tome’s 586 pages. Hugo! is an action packed saga that both informs and entertains.

Jones also offers a detailed treatment of the Revolution’s social missions (misiones), taking pains to explain the concrete ways that regular Venezuelan’s have been helped and empowered – something that often goes unsaid in the mainstream media’s anti-Chávez screeds. The missions, ranging from literacy education and job training to community clinics and subsidized food marts, are not perfect, but they have transformed millions of Venezuelan lives. “To Venezuela’s poor... the missions were revolutionary. Flaws and all, they were a genuine and massive effort to help lift the underclass the likes of which the country had never seen. By some estimates, by 2006 some three million people had enrolled in one of the educational missions since their initiation in 2003.”

Jones also draws out the myriad intellectual and political influences that shaped a young Chávez and his Bolivarian conspiracy inside the Venezuelan military. Jones describes Chávez’s early infatuation with Latin American liberation leader Simón Bolívar as well as his encounters with leftist Peruvian military dictator Juan Velasco Alvarado, civilian activists and former guerrillas.

Jones also garners some important insights into Chávez’s personal life, including the Bolivarian leader’s penchant for gaining and losing close allies. Hugo! also provides new information about Herma Marksman, Chávez’s lover who played a key, but until recently unconfirmed, role in the Bolivarian military conspiracy.

A book review by Marc Cooper criticizes Jones for going way too far in defending certain Chávez “missteps.” I think that Jones is generally responsible in critiquing Chávez, while Cooper seems analytically blinded by his antipathy towards the President.

But I agree with Cooper on at least one point: Jones is wrong to downplay Chávez’s call for his coalition parties to dissolve and join a new United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). Jones is entirely correct in saying that the move was legal and democratic – but was it good for the Revolution? The conflict is complex and merits discussion. The Venezuelan Communist Party, Patria Para Todos and a number of other small leftist parties refused to dissolve into the PSUV ranks. Chávez responded by calling them “disloyal counterrevolutionaries.” PSUV supporters argue that the formation of a unified, mass party was necessary to organize the disparate and often fractious array of forces behind the Revolution. Was the move an organizational necessity or a political error? This remains an open question.

The PSUV issue is symptomatic of Jones' scant discussion of Venezuelan social movements, and this reinforces the Chávez-centric image of the Bolivarian Revolution. While social movements in Venezuela may not be as powerful as in neighboring countries, the Bolivarian Revolution has led to mass social organization and myriad grassroots movements that support Chávez while pushing him to deliver on his transformational promises. I feel that Jones could have explored this necessary element of Venezuela's political life – and by extension Chavez's – by examining movement groups such as the armed barrio militias, the rural Frente Campesino Ezequiel Zamora, or the National Workers' Union (UNT).

The UNT was established to challenge the business-friendly National Workers Confederation. Intense factional struggles have developed within the UNT between a pro-Revolution wing that insists on independence from the government and a wing controlled by party bureaucrats close to Chávez. Telling the story of the UNT would have been a good vantage point from which to examine the various “contradictions” – as they call them on the Venezuelan left – within the Bolivarian process. But Hugo! is, after all, a biography, and Jones should not be judged too harshly for the genre’s limitations.

Nonetheless, Jones notably dedicates an entire chapter to the Caracazo massacre. The spontaneous uprising against President Carlos Andrés Pérez’s neoliberal economic reforms was set off on the morning February 27, 1989, when Venezuelans found that bus fares had shot up by 30% overnight – the result of an IMF austerity package. Andrés Pérez ordered a military crackdown, leading to an estimated 399 deaths. Soldiers were horrified by what the President had ordered them to do, rendering them enforcers of the neoliberal order. Jones notes, “The Caracazo... served to stiffen the rebels’ resolve to overturn a system they considered corrupt and evil.” Chávez’s 1992 coup attempt – and the outpouring of public sympathy – can be viewed within the same lineage of the Caracazo, according to Jones.

In an afterword to the 2008 edition of the book, Jones takes a look at some of the obstacles faced by the Bolivarian Revolution in 2007 and 2008.

On December 2, 2007, the government’s proposed constitutional reforms were voted down by a slim margin. Rather than an opposition surge at the polls, Jones’ chalks the loss up to the fact that “many of Chávez’s supporters simply stayed home.” While Chávez readily conceded defeat, Jones notes that it is unclear whether Chávez will take the loss as an opportunity to reflect or simply hunker down. The defeat, he writes, “raised a central question about Chávez: As he grew in power and fame, was he becoming too isolated from the people, too all-knowing and powerful? For a man who was famous for his ability to sense the pulse of the country at the street level, he had badly misinterpreted the sentiment on this one.”

Unlike the highly successful 1998 Constitution and its passage, the failed 2007 constitutional reforms were decreed from the top-down and were not the process of grassroots discussion. Then came the November 2008 elections, when Chávez experienced another electoral setback.

Although government allies won in 17 of 22 states, they lost in Caracas and other populous areas. The opposition had changed tack and ran against local governments’ inefficiency and corruption, instead of basing their campaign on insulting the President or the widely popular social programs and misiones. Chávez remained popular, with approval ratings over 60%, but ineffective local and regional leaders were unable to “return to power on the coattails of the popular President Chávez,” wrote James Petras.

Chávez’s victory in the February 2009 referendum, which removed term limits for all elected officials including president, is a testament to this popularity. A closer look at these events will have to await the afterword of a future edition.

Jones turns to this weakness of the Revolution's political process in examining the December 2007 referendum on series of constitutional reforms—one of which would have abolished presidential term limits. Mainstream reporters harped on the referendum as an anti-democratic move (while paying almost no attention to Álvaro Uribe's attempt to do the same next door in Colombia).

Of course, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected four times and many countries, France included, have no term limits, but Jones writes that the Venezuelan referendum “underscored one of the central weaknesses of the Bolivarian Revolution: it had aspects of a one-man show and was over-dependent on Chávez as its central figure. There was a sense that if Chávez left the scene tomorrow, the whole Bolivarian project might collapse.”

This raises important questions, for much is at stake. Venezuelan popular movements and the President they brought to power have transformed Venezuela. But the transition to an economically and socially just society, an alternative to globalizing capitalism, is no simple thing. With oil prices down, a new face in the White House and domestic problems to conquer, the task for Chávez and millions of Venezuelans has become more difficult.

Meanwhile, the mainstream press will continue with one of its seemingly favorite pastimes: mocking the impassioned statements of oppressed people's leaders as the outbursts of a madman. (The treatment is not limited to Latin American leaders; consider the media’s election season crucifixion of Rev. Jeremiah Wright.) Mainstream media everywhere has a context problem and Jones, remarkably coming straight from their ranks, offers a systematic corrective.

Daniel Denvir is an independent journalist who recently moved from Quito, Ecuador to West Philly. He is a contributing writer at the Philadelphia Weekly.

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