Welcome to political mythbusters! I'm a PhD student studying media and Venezuela. Following the death of Hugo Chavez, it has saddened me to see so many ignorant comments left on the internet. It is also clear that Venezuela is one of the most misunderstood countries in the world. I'm going to do my best to clear up some myths about the country.
Criticisms of the Chavez administration fall into three categories: false and hypocritical, real but hypocritical, and real and moral. What I've found is that, with astonishing consistency, the accusations hurled at the government fall into the first two categories.
I don't want you to just believe me. I have given you links so you can scrutinize my argument fully. Check up on me. Am I making this stuff up or exaggerating? Every effort has been made to use unimpeachable sources of primary data, such as the World Bank, the United Nations and highly reputable polling organizations like Pew and Latinobarmetro, which is a Chilean polling organization whose work features regularly in the Economist, Wall Street Journal and New York Times. I'm simply going to compare the reports from these organizations with the media's reporting on the country.
Let's get myth-busting!
The Accusation: Chavez led a coup.
Despite producing more the $300 billion of oil wealth between 1958-1998, the equivalent of 20 Marshall Plans, the majority of Venezuelans were living in shocking slums.(McCaughan, The battle of Venezuela, pp.29-32) By the 1990s, quality of life indicators for ordinary Caracas residents were below Port-Au-Prince, Haiti. Between 1970 and 1997, workers' incomes declined by 50%, while poverty doubled between 1984 and 1991. President Carlos Andres Perez, on orders from the IMF, increased oil prices for Venezuelans. This led to increases in transport costs, to the point where Caracas residents were spending, on average, 25% of their entire wages on bus fares (Jones, B. Hugo!, p.116). Food riots broke out and Perez sent the army in. 3 days of terror ensued. The LA Times' Bart Jones speaks of Red Cross workers being gunned down in the street, “mass graves” being filled with “mutilated corpses”, “tied up corpses” with “bullets in the back of their heads” and children being gunned down as the armies fired indiscriminately into shanty towns (Jones, Hugo! pp. 121-124). Much of the army leadership was deeply shocked at this. They began to gather around a young Colonel called Hugo Chavez and conspired to rebel against the President. The rebellion of 1992 failed, and Chavez was sentenced to what amounted to a life sentence, yet, the rebellion was so popular with the public that the new president, Rafael Caldera was pressured into releasing Chavez just 2 years later. After getting out he immediately began to organize for a Presidential election.
Myth: Partially confirmed
Myth: The Venezuelan economy is a shambles.
Net national income has also nearly tripled.
Meanwhile, both the United Nations Development Project and the World Bank agree that unemployment has dropped from over 11% to under 8%.
When asked themselves, Venezuelans have the highest confidence in their economy of any Latin American country in 2007 and it remains high today, despite the pro-cyclical economic measures taken by the government during the financial crisis.
And Venezuela's external debt has dropped precipitously.
Meanwhile, Venezuela's stock market is the best-performing in the world. You may have heard stupid Chavez is causing massive inflation, but the data shows something different. One year before Chavez took office, inflation was an eye-watering 103%. It is now in the teens. In fact, the high-point inflation under Chavez was lower than the lowest inflation under the previous 2 presidents, Caldera and Perez.
Myth: Chavez is a dictator
In 2005, Latin Americans were asked to rate their country's democracy from 1-10. Venezuelans rated their democracy the best in Latin America. By 2010, thanks to the democratic wave that swept the continent, much to the chagrin of the United States government, it had been caught up by a few countries, but still posted a good score of 7.1- among the highest in the region.
Venezuela has by far the most political parties in Latin America, and confidence in them is the joint-highest in the region.
In 2002, 80% of Venezuelans believe their vote influences policy- one of the highest in the continent.
In 2009, Venezuelans were asked to rate their democracy from 1-10. By far the highest answer was 10.
So how does Chavez do it? It must be because...
Myth: Chavez Controls the Media
There appears to be an authoritarian dictator crushing freedom of the press in Venezuela. We read about it all the time. How many free outlets can be left? None, according to Congressman Connie Mack. But, as Mark Weisbrot has shown in an extensive study, the Venezuelan state owns only about 5% of all media outlets. Both Le MondeDiplo and the virulently anti-Chavez BBC agree on the 5% figure. For comparison, state-owned media accounts for 40 and 37% of British and French TV. 9 out of the top 10 selling newspapers in Venezuela are strongly anti-Chavez. J.M.H. Salas reports that they regularly assault him with words like “sambo", "thick-lipped", "monkey” and “ape” (Chavez is the first-non white President). In contrast to what we read, Venezuelans believe there's about as much freedom of speech as there is in Spain. The private media organized, publicized and participated in the coup attempt of 2002, but were not sanctioned afterwards. They continue their all out attack to this day.
It is agreed by all serious commentators (eg. Greg Wilpert, Tariq Ali and Bart Jones) that there are no political prisoners in Venezuela. In fact, Jones goes further, stating that the Venezuelan media is “arguably the freest in the world” (Jones, Hugo! P425). Professor Margarita Lopez Maya, fellow of Columbia and Oxford Univiersity, states that "I don't think in any part of the world you could hear the things the media says about the President, his cabinet, his minister, the governors, the policies...it's obscene."
This was not always the case in Venezuela.
President Carlos Andres Perez (1989-93) imposed martial law in Venezuela and ordered the terrible "Caracazo" massacre, killing perhaps 3000. Perez put official state censors in every newsroom in the country. (Jones, Hugo! p163).
Rafael Caldera (1993-1999), the President before Chavez, suspended the constitutional rights of Venezuelans, such as safeguards on arrests, and suspended the law. Caldera arrested 150 political prisoners and continued state censorship. Things reached an absurd level when an astrologer was arrested for predicting the octogenarian's death on an occult television show.
During the coup of 2002, which ousted Chavez, Pedro Carmona reigned for 47 hours. He suspended the consitution, fired state representatives, liquidated the judiciary, and claimed he could rule by decree. He even changed the name of the country. He told Venezuelans to prepare lists of Chavez supporters and hand them into police.
Pro-Chavez community channels were raided. Radio CatiaLibre 93.5FM was raided and destroyed by the police. The DJ was arrested at gunpoint while on air and tortured. (McCaughan, M. The Battle of Venezuela, p.102).
TV Caricuao was raided by police while the private TV station Venevision gleefully filmed Caricuao's staff being beaten with clubs. Radio Perola was searched. As no one was there, the police went to the staff's houses. Its director, Nicolas Rivero, was arrested and "brutally tortured", in his words (McCaughan, p103). On that day, more than 100 Chavez supporters were arrested and more than 100 murdered.
Interestingly, that year, the Inter-American Press Society gave its highest honour to the press of Venezuela, for "not caving into government harrassment...for fulfilling its duty to inform in times of crisis...journalists risking their lives, facing danger and intimidation from the government". You might assume they were giving it to Nicolas Rivero, but, in fact, in this Orwellian world, they were giving it to Venevision, who aided the torture of journalists.
Recently, the newspaper, Ultimas Noticias (for the record, a neutral newspaper) did a study of media bias in the 2012 elections. They found that private stations such as Globovision gave more than 10 times as much positive press to Chavez's opponent, Capriles, than to Chavez, while Televen gave 90% of its coverage to Capriles. (Figures including Chavez's Cadenas, where he interrupts normal scheduling to address the nation). The only TV channel which had a pro-Chavez bias was the only state-owned TV station, VTV, which gave about 2.5 times as much coverage to Chavez than Capriles. In total, there was a 60/40 bias in favour of Capriles. However, this small study did not include the vast array of private TV stations, only four, including the only government one.
Myth: There are Terrible Human Rights Violations in Venezuela
Missing in the West's portrayal of human rights in Venezuela is discussion of United Nations recognized human rights such as the Right to Health, the Right to an Adequate Standard of Living, the Right to Education and the Rights to Food and Water, that were being denied to literally tens of millions of Venezuelans before Chavez. Why? Because the Rand-loving free-marketeers of the US elite reject these rights as "a letter to Santa Claus". If you're poor, you don't deserve food or water.
Myth: There are big food/power shortages in Venezuela
At the same time, the United Nations Development Programme shows that child malnutrition has dropped by 2/3 in ten years and that Venezuelans eat about 25% more food than they did under the old regime.
Similarly, the rabidly anti-Chavez World Bank shows that electricity production has increased a remarkable 50% in 14 years.
The reason for this is the government instituted price-controls and gave people jobs, increasing their purchasing power. This meant for the first time in their lives, ordinary people can afford things like electricity and dairy produce. I'd like to invite you to think about the mindset behind a media that thinks there is no shortage of electricity when the poor majority have none at all but they and their friends in gated communities had all they wanted. We can find few examples of hang-wringing articles from journalists before Chavez was elected. Because of price controls, Venezuelans can afford food and electricity, leading to occasional brown outs or blackouts or shortages at peak times. Rich Venezuelans having to settle for a local brand of mayo because an average Jose has bought the last jar of Kraft constitutes a "food shortage", but not when literally millions of children were chronically malnourished.
The ideology behind this is monstrous. Evidently, poor people aren't human beings and therefore don't deserve food or energy. Clutching copies of Rand and Friedman, they insist the market should determine who gets basic services, not the representatives of the people, and even setting up soup kitchens for the homeless is trapping them in a "dependency culture". It's not that there are no food shortages, but the problem has gone from “I am starving to death” to “out of milk, again?!”.
Myth: Venezuela is the most dangerous place in the world
The United Nations has shown that homicides have been falling for the last 4 years and that the Venezuelan murder rate is less than half of Honduras'. And, of course, murder is hardly a common crime in any country. Those claiming crime was the country's primary problem jumped from a negligible 0.6% of respondents to 65% by 2010. And yet, at the same time, those claiming that they or their family were actually victims of crime has dropped from 49% in 1998 to 28% in 2010.
Even as crime is seemingly falling, people's perception of crime has skyrocketed 10750%! How to explain this? The media. The next chart shows the amount of stories appearing in the New York Times each year which include the words "Venezuela" and "crime". The lines correlate remarkably closely.
There has been a massive, concerted, sustained, and, ultimately, successful, campaign by both Venezuelan and Western media to drive the population into hysteria about crime in the country. And yet, for all of it, Venezuelans are less concerned about crime than most South Americans. In fact, out of the 6 South American countries Pew Global asked, Venezuelans came in only 5th in their fear of crime.
Myth: Hugo Chavez is anti-semitic
"The world has enough for everybody but it turned out that a few minorities--the descendants of those who crucified Christ, the descendants of those who expelled Bolivar from here and also those who in a certain way crucified him in Santa Marta, there in Colombia--they took possession of the riches of the world, a minority took possession of the planet's gold, the silver, the minerals, the water, the good lands, the oil, and they have concentrated all the riches in the hands of a few; less than 10 percent of the world population owns more than half of the riches of the world."
A long list of traitors. Why have they taken out the context and the Bolivar part? Duh, because you can't slander people for anti-Semitism otherwise. Unmentioned in all this is that "the people who crucified Christ" were Romans, not Jews. So Chavez gave a speech where he mentioned a load of horrible people and did not include Jews. Therefore he is anti-Semitic. It is a standard tactic of both the US and Israel to label their enemies as "anti-Semites". A New York Times search for "Nicaragua anti-Semitism" will throw up a slew of articles like "So are the Sandinistas anti-Semitic? Of course they are" from the 1980s, when the left-wing Sandinistas were in charge, but almost nothing before or after. If only the Sandinistas could be like the US-trained fascist death squads who took over the country, by being totally not anti-Semitic. What Chavez certainly is is a vocal critic of US and Israeli government policy. But seeing as he's not Jewish he can't be a self-hating Jew.
Myth: Hugo Chavez is an Isolated, Unpopular Leader, Loved only by dictators
Most of the reports of this come from the time when Chavez went on a whistle-stop tour of the oil-producing countries. The day after he met Saddam Hussein and Ahmadinejad he actually met a dictator with a far worse human rights record. That person was US-favorite, the King of Saudi Arabia.
The picture elicited almost no response in the US media whatsoever. Chavez has taken a lead in reinvigorating the OPEC cartel, and his visits were laying the groundwork for an agreed reduction in oil drilling, in order to stabilize prices. If you want to do deals with other oil producing nations, you're going to have to meet a lot of dictators.
Chavez was the first President of the Pink Tide, who see themselves as left-leaning, anti-imperialist politicians. Chavez's opponent in the 2012 election race claimed he wasn't a US stooge, but a follower of the popular socialist ex-President of Brazil, Lula. Lula rejected this, openly backing Chavez, saying
"A victory for Chávez is not just a victory for the people of Venezuela but also a victory for all the people of Latin America … this victory will strike another blow against imperialism." President Correa of Ecuador has called Chavez “a guiding light” (Jones, p.420), while the President of Bolivia has called him "an inspiration for all peoples who fight for their liberation...he will always be present in all regions of the world and all social sectors. He will always be with us, accompanying us." If you're wondering who is this "empire" the presidents are talking about, it is the USA.
Chavez is certainly a polarizing figure in Latin America. So while Chile's public doesn't like him, Argentina's have a more positive opinion. However, when asked which country they admired the most, Latin Americans chose Venezuela by a considerable margin.
You may have heard that Chavez drew laughs at the UN after comparing Bush to the devil. What you probably don't know is that Chavez received one of the longest standing ovations in United Nations history for his speech. His speech laid out the problems the world was facing, what his government was doing to stop them, and proposing that oil producers and consumers come together to combat climate change. A US diplomat claimed that the applause was for the “sheer entertainment factor”. I'll leave it to you to judge whether seasoned diplomats give standing ovations to comedians. Chavez's biographer, Tariq Ali, tells the story that senior African and Asian diplomats came to Chavez thanking him for “saying the things we can't."
Myth: Chavez is militaristic and threatening the USA
As you can see, Venezuela spends less than half the money Colombia does on defence and has had a 40% decrease in military spending, compared with GDP. For a sane look at the Venezuelan military, try Wilpert, G. Changing Venezuela by Taking Power, ch. 5
Bonus Myth: The People are worse off under Chavez
Chavez instituted a national healthcare system which had performed 225 million consultations by 2007 alone. (Cannon, B. Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution, p. 93) The number of public doctors has increased by 1200%, from 1628 to 19571 by 2007. 50,000 Venezuelans were given free operations to restore their sight. Between 1 and 1.5 million were taught to read for the first time (Jones, p. 8). Health expenditure per person has tripled.
Accorrding to the Gini coefficient, Venezuela went from the most unequal country in Latin America to the most equal.
The numbers corroborated by this BBC article. Foreign Affairs, the flagship US political science journal, reports that, according to a DataAnalysis report, the Venezuelan poorer classes enjoyed a 445% income increase and a 194% income increase for the upper classes, due to the huge economic boom driven by the state. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, between 2002 and 2007, there was a 65% increase in the numbers of Venezuelans agreeing that the government has a positive effect on their lives, one of the highest increases in the world.
So there you have it. Either there is a huge conspiracy involving the United Nations, World Bank, the majority of Latin American studies professors, heads of state all over the world and polling organizations, or the media is lying to you, like they lied to you about Iraq and Afghanistan and the economy, and the elections, and everything else. Pretty juicy, either way. As a student of Latin America, I think Venezuela is one of the most vibrant democracies on Earth, yet the media is representing it as a hellhole. Why is this? Many have asked. Below is a small selection of media critiques on Venezuela.
Some say it can be explained with Chomsky and Hermann's Propaganda Model. Remember the hysteria when Obama might have been introducing a state-run option for healthcare? “He is a Kenyan-Islamofascist-Antichrist-Commie!” Well, imagine what the media would be like if he'd done all the things mentioned here. Venezuela is certainly not an ideal society by any means, but it saddens me to see so many derogatory remarks made about someone who spearheaded change which the majority wanted. It also clouds real debate over his failings, as people like me are forced to spend their time correcting and replying to nonsense accusations. The media did not hate and fear Chavez because of his failings, of which there were many, but because of his achievements in bringing about progressive change.