With Sunday's Venezuelan referendum on term limits, we can expect to hear a lot about Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez's "plan to become president for life" and its reflection on "Venezuela's battered democracy," as the New York Times editors put it around the time of Venezuela's last (failed) term limits referendum.
But when Colombian President Álvaro Uribe's efforts to change a constitutional prohibition barring a president from serving more than one term succeeded in 2005, the U.S. media took little notice, and Uribe's reputation as the U.S.'s favorite "democrat" in the region remained intact.
While not identical, the two examples have some notable parallels. In Colombia, the amendment on term limits that Congress voted on in 2004, and the Supreme court upheld the following year, allowed Uribe to seek a second term in office, paving the way for his reelection. Uribe is currently pushing to amend the constitution to allow him to run for a third term. In Venezuela, Chavez is seeking constitutional changes that would eliminate term limits altogether.
The change in Colombia's term limits law was a big story in Colombia, in good part because the Colombian courts have sentenced the congress member who cast the deciding 2004 vote on the amendment to almost four years under house-arrest for taking bribes from Uribe aides (he knew nothing, of course) in exchange for her vote. And though Uribe supporters are collecting signatures to get him on the ballot for 2010 elections, the bribery affair has caused Colombian courts to raise questions about Uribe's eligibility.
Yet Uribe's scandal-ridden term limits efforts were treated as far less newsworthy by U.S. editors than the Venezuelan government's moves to put the question of term limits to the popular ballot. A search of "Álvaro Uribe and "term limits" in the Nexis database of U.S. newspapers and wires turns up 60 articles, in contrast to 1003 articles about Chávez and term limits. A spot check reveals that even the articles mentioning Uribe and "term limits" were often about Chávez's efforts to lift term limits, not Uribe's maneuvers.
Similarly, 286 articles mentioned both Chávez and "president for life," while only 29 articles mention Uribe and that epithet – but virtually all of those 29 were again referring to Chávez's perceived power grabs, not Uribe's. (One Associated Press story did compare Uribe to Chávez, but didn't quite apply the term to Uribe: "The wonkish, diminutive but tirelessly tenacious politician [Uribe], who turned 56 on Friday, has been cagey on that score. Those who oppose the idea [of Uribe running again] say it would put him in league with his continental rival, Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, who has been widely branded autocratic for doing his utmost to try to stay president for life.")
This discrepancy reinforces the findings of a recent FAIR study, "Human Rights Coverage Serving Washington's Needs," which found that editors at major U.S. papers portray Colombia as a safer haven for human rights and democracy than Venezuela, despite Colombia's vastly more dismal record.
It would seem the role of U.S. reporting and opinion on Venezuela (and Colombia) is less about informing the public about real threats to democracy and human rights in Latin America than it is about serving as a propaganda arm of U.S. foreign policy. One would be wise to remember this when reading about Venezuela's referendum this weekend.
Steve Rendall is FAIR's senior analyst and the co-author of FAIR's February 2009 study, "Human Rights Coverage Serving Washington's Needs: FAIR finds editors downplaying Colombia’s abuses, amplifying Venezuela’s." Isabel Macdonald is the communications director at FAIR.