The British Press on the Death of Chávez

by Josh Watts

The death of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez has prompted extensive coverage of the late president and his life. Chávez’ failure to appease the United States was sufficient to attract the consistent hostility of the mainstream press during his years as president. What, then, have been the immediate reactions to his passing?

Crimes & Condolences

In the Times,[1] Hannah Strange writes how Chávez had ‘sought to emulate’ Fidel Castro, and his ‘lengthy tenure as a revolutionary and US nemesis’. It is not that Chávez sought to be a ‘US nemesis’; rather, as Tariq Ali comments: Chávez’s ‘policies were not designed to appease Washington or the Venezuelan elite. It was impossible that Chávez would make radical foreign policy changes but somehow remain loyal to the Washington Consensus’.[2]

Chávez leaves behind a ‘chequered legacy’, Strange continues; a country struggling with ‘a toxic class war’ – despite the fact that inequality was rampant before Chávez took power. His crime was simply to have poured the country’s immense `oil wealth into social missions – education, healthcare, subsidised food’; not to mention ‘wield[ing] his control of the country’s oil reserves as a political weapon and propp[ing] up allies such as Cuba, Nicaragua and Bolivia with cheap oil’ – the unforgivable sin of promoting inter-American cooperation and regional independence.

The Times also states that Chávez was ‘pardoned for leading a failed 1992 coup’. This is simply false, or at best misleading. The prison term he served for the coup was merely shortened. The actual fact that he did serve time in prison would disavow the notion that he was exempted from the act entirely, as implied.[3]

For the Guardian, ‘perhaps the most significant [message of condolence] was from Barack Obama’: 

At this challenging time of President Hugo Chavez’s passing, the United States reaffirms its support for the Venezuelan people and its interest in developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government. As Venezuela begins a new chapter in its history, the US remains committed to policies that promote democratic principles, the rule of law and respect for human rights.[4] 

We might ask if this is the same support it offered to the majority of Venezuelan people in 2002, when it backed an attempted coup to overthrow Chávez, whom they had democratically elected. Is it by so doing that the United States promotes democratic principles and the rule of law? Are they the principles to which it was committed – particularly respect for human rights – when it backed and installed barbaric military dictatorships across the region throughout the 20th century?[5] (For the Daily Telegraph, Obama’s was a ‘carefully worded statement’).[6]

This ‘black hole of history’[7] is indirectly raised in an analysis of US-Venezuela relations in the Guardian by Simon Tisdall, when Tisdall writes that in Obama’s first term he ‘ended up perpetuating Washington’s historical neglect of Latin America’.[8]  Where, it could be asked, is the neglect? Is it in invasion of Haiti in 1915 which lasted 19 years? Do we find it in the US sponsorship of the coup that brought General Augusto Pinochet to power in Chile, on 11 September, 1973? How about in its relentless attack on Nicaragua following the 1979 Sandinista revolution, which was condemned by the World Court?[9] Does neglect exist in the 1983 invasion of Grenada, or of Panama in 1989? What about the coup in Brazil in 1964, or an invasion of the Dominican Republic the following year? Was a CIA-engineered coup in Guatemala in 1954 and consistent support for dictatorships for decades after, which was, according to the UN, in part responsible for the genocide that was carried out there by state forces,[10] a sign of neglect? It must then exist in the scores upon scores of attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro, Cuba’s former head of state. We can also not ignore the training of Latin American military troops at the United States’ School of the Americas,graduates of which were involved in many – and some of the most notorious instances of - human rights abuses;[11] not to mention Operation Condor, a region wide programme of cooperation and assassination between right-wing governments of the region, created with the support of the US. Whatever the intervention in question, this supposed neglect is dispelled at the very least by a State Department paper of 1953, which stated that ‘our [the United States Government’s] purpose [in Latin America] should be to arrest the development of irresponsibility and extreme nationalism and their belief in their immunity from the exercise of US power’.[12] Also notable is Tisdall’s citing a lengthy critique of Chávez by a former US ambassador – which contains falsehoods that pass unquestioned – but there is no defence of Chávez to accompany the critique.[13]

Cuba, Again

The US’ bloody record in Latin America is mentioned only twice (excluding the Times obituary);[14] one of which comes from a commentary by David Aaronovitch in the Times: Chávez ‘put two fingers up at the United States, whose record in Latin America, up till the 1980s, had been one of support for vicious dictators’[15] (though we should note, crucially, that such support only faded when it became untenable). That, and the fact that Chávez ‘set out reforms and programmes . . . that helped the poorest’, are the only concessions Aaronovitch makes for the late president, however: ‘He sucked all the air out of Venezuela’s civil and political society’; ‘He was Fidel [Castro] with an electoral mandate – and a Christ complex’. Significantly, Chávez ‘strong-armed and intimidated the opposition, bent the constitution, muzzled the press, enriched relatives and friends’. Aaronovitch rounds off with a reference to ‘that other lost hope’, Cuba, and what the reaction of its ‘ruling classes’ is to Chávez’s death.

William Dobson takes a similar line in the Financial Times, focusing on how the ‘End of Chávismo spells trouble for the Castros’, describing Cuba as a ‘tropical dictatorship’, which ‘is steeling itself for the post-Chávez world’.[16] ‘[C]ementing his ties to Venezuela’s strongman’, Dobson contends, ‘was Mr Castro’s final masterstroke for buttressing his regime after the collapse of the Soviet Union’, but ‘as Chávismo crumbles so goes the last best hope for a Cuban experiment that failed long ago’. Dobson does have some things to say about Chávez, however.  Without possibly knowing whether or not such a claim is true, he writes that ‘Few Venezuelans will miss the Commandante’s foreign policy. They voted for him because of his domestic initiatives and for keeping the oil tap on for one populist project after another’. There is no explanation of what these ‘populist projects’ were, or how they affected the Venezuelan population. Dobson continues: ‘Most Venezuelans, even a fair number of Chávistas, greeted their president’s foreign agenda with an eye roll’. He adds: ‘The logic for why Venezuela should have close relations with Belarus or some other distant central Asian regime usually escaped them’.  The logic of such relations on the part of western states like Britain seems to escape Dobson.

Successors

The real issue at play is explained on the front page of the Guardian: Venezuela holds ‘the world’s greatest untapped reserves of oil’,[17] and, as the Independent stresses: Chávez’s ‘death plunges one of the world’s leading petro-nations into what is certain to be a pitched political struggle the outcome of which remains uncertain’.[18] The Independent’s report draws on the same crude caricatures seen elsewhere: ‘Mr Maduro’, the Vice-President, ‘and his allies will doubtless do what they can to capitalise on the sympathy that the passing of Mr Chavez will elicit’, writes US editor David Usborne.[19]

‘Mr Maduro will doubtless proclaim his intention to prolong and build on the so-called Bolivarian revolution that was begun by Mr Chavez’, Usborne continues, in characteristically evidence-free fashion. Equally unqualified is the assertion that Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chávez in last year’s presidential election, is ‘a more viable leader to run against’ Maduro, than any such a candidate the opposition had in the past. If it is because he ‘built a wide base of support fighting in the last presidential contest last summer’, then it should be reiterated that the opposition, evidently, did not win then; so why should we assume that they might do so this time around? After all, ‘pollsters said Mr Maduro would probably win against Mr Capriles’, according to the Financial Times.[20]

The final perspective to be considered from the Independent concerns Maduro’s comments ‘that Chavez’s cancer had been somehow induced by foul play by “the historical enemies of our homeland”’. Apparently this has ‘caused some to wonder if Mr Maduro was setting up a confrontation with the US as an excuse to delay elections’.[21] We are not told who ”some” are, though their unattributed beliefs mark the next stage, that of raising doubts doubts about the legitimacy of the electoral process itself. Meanwhile, in the Daily Telegraph, Vice-President Maduro is described as ‘ha[ving] built his entire career on loyalty and obedience to Chavez’ – ‘his late master’ -  and being able to ‘claim to be a prototype “Chavista”’’.[22] The Times echoes this: ‘his entire life has been a show of devotion to el Commandante’, who was himself a ‘garrulous socialist’ ‘who commanded an almost cult-like adoration from devotees’.[23]

Chávez on Obama

Chávez himself is described by the Telegraph as ‘a flamboyant emblem of Anti-Americanism’ and ‘one of the world’s most notorious radical statesmen’,[24] whose ‘demise was welcomed by many leaders in Washington’,[25] and whose ‘Passing will put to test his claim that Revolution does not rest on one man’.[26]  The welcome of his passing was perhaps justified by the fact that ‘Mr Chavez repeatedly criticised what he called American imperialism, styling himself as one of Washington’s most vocal critics and irritating opponents’.[27] Having endorsed Barack Obama in 2008, ‘he later said the young Democratic president had been disappointing and merely extended US wrongdoing’ – not an unreasonable position given that Obama has failed to close Guantánamo Bay; the embargo on Cuba remains in place; the tacit support the Obama administration lent to the 2009 coup in Honduras, and Paraguay in 2012; and its refusal to submit documents to the trial of former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier, whose reign the US supported. 

Rory Carroll & Chávez

The second mention of US involvement in Latin America, comes, from all places, from Rory Carroll, the Guardian’s former South America correspondent, whose bias regarding Venezuela has been extensively documented by Sam Grove.[28] Carroll not only stays on message: he seems to have nothing more to say on the late leader than he did before Chávez had won the 2012 election. It is worth comparing his extensive piece against an article Carroll wrote in the run-up to last year’s election.[29]

7 October, 2012: ‘Chávez, Gabriel Garcia Marquez once noted, had "a body of reinforced concrete"’.

06 March, 2013: He was indestructible: possessor, as Gabriel Garcia Marquez once noted, of a body of reinforced concrete.

 

7 October, 2012: ‘His legacy will be debated for decades, much as people still argue over Juan Peron in Argentina. . . . There was Chávez the dictator who jailed opponents, sponsored terrorists and left his people hungry. And there was Chávez the hero who empowered the poor, deepened democracy and stood up to the US’.

06 March, 2013: ‘Will rumps of Chavismo endure the way Peronism in Argentina has outlived Juan Peron? Another question, one that historians and political partisans will spend decades debating, is Chávez’s legacy. . . . There was Chávez the dictator who jailed opponents, sponsored terrorists and left his people hungry. And then there was Chavez the hero who empowered the poor, deepened democracy and stood up to the US’.

 

7 October, 2012: ‘He turned a blind eye to Farc guerrilla camps near the Colombian border and hailed the likes of Mugabe, Gaddafi and Assad as brothers’.

06 March, 2013: ‘He turned a blind eye to Farc guerrilla camps near the Colombian border and hailed the likes of Mugabe, Gaddafi and Assad as brothers’.

 

7 October, 2012: ‘. . .the same president was adored by millions of his people, won free (if not always fair) elections, survived a US-backed coup, accepted electoral defeat (a 2007 referendum), spent oil revenues on health clinics, literacy courses and social programmes, slashed poverty, devolved power to communal councils, stood up to George Bush over Iraq, encouraged regional pride and assertiveness across Latin America and did it all with charisma and flair’.

06 March, 2013: ‘. . . Chávez was revered by millions. . . . He won free (if not always fair) elections, spent lavishly on health clinics, literacy courses and social programmes, slashed poverty, devolved power to communal councils, stood up to George Bush over Iraq, encouraged regional pride and assertiveness across Latin America and did it all with charisma and flair’.

 

7 October, 2012: ‘Chávez, in other words, was – is – a hybrid: a democrat and autocrat, a progressive and a bully. His "Bolivarian revolution", named after the 19th-century revolutionary Simón Bolivar, has embodied these contradictions’.

06 March, 2013: ‘Chávez was a hybrid, a democrat and autocrat, a progressive and a bully. His “Bolivarian revolution”, named after the 19th-century revolutionary, Simón Bolìvar, embodied these contradictions’.

Carroll accuses Caracas – thus, Chávez – of ‘Orwellian rhetoric’.[30] , yet in 2009 Carroll himself wrote of ‘relief that the [Cuban] revolution stayed on its Caribbean island’, denying that the entire region had ‘bathe[d] in blood and suffering’.[31] ‘No wistful imaginings of what Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Peru would look like today had the dominos toppled’, he wrote, turning a blind eye to the ‘longstanding, vindictive and demented policy [of the US embargo] which has pummelled Cuba’s economy’ - enacted by a ‘US empire’ that had ‘bullied and corrupted the region for over a century’ - and ‘the penury Cubans have endured over the last five decades’. That Chávez was a ‘hero who empowered the poor, deepened democracy and stood up to the US’ is presented as a counter to Chávez as a ‘dictator’ and so would seemingly not need qualifying. However, exactly how he ‘stood up to’ the US Is a topic which merits detail, but no such detail is given. To do so would of course raise questions about the benign, ‘good’ intentions of the US and its ‘interests’. Similarly, exactly which ‘terrorists’ he aided, we are not told while, in noting Farc camps on the Colombian border, Carroll fails to mention the Colombian state terror backed by the west.

Carroll also raises a notion which arose during last year's election; that is, the worry that Chávez supporters may not accept an electoral victory by opposition leader Henrique Capriles, implying a potential for violence which itself ignores the fact that it was the right-wing opposition which detained Chavez in a US-funded coup.

Obituaries

Obituaries do not differ much from the general consensus found in the reports. Chávez could do no right, and where he did, it is largely ignored or denied relevant detail. Thus, as the Times asserts: ‘The deal Chávez struck in 2007 with Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, for Venezuela to provide cheap fuel for London’s buses, was a typical piece of showmanship and was little more than a distraction’.[32] All that matters is that ‘His 14-year tenure as president was marked by increasingly autocratic rule’; ‘Moreover, his use of the country’s vast oil wealth to fund social programmes did little to mask high levels of corruption, crime and human rights abuses’. Meanwhile, the US-supported coup in 2002 was nothing more than ‘a group of military and civilian conspirators, with discreet support from Washington, ha[ving] captured Chavez [and] forc[ing] him to step down’.

In the view of the Financial Times, Chavez’s ‘anti-imperialist rants alienated early allies. So did his friendship with pariah governments in Iran, Libya and, especially, with the Cuba of Fidel Castro’.[33] We may note that these ‘friendships’ are mentioned without a trace of well-deserved irony, given the friendships between western states and countless repressive regimes – throughout history, in fact. The Daily Telegraph’s position on Chávez is well-captured in the following introductory comment: he ‘was  a shrewd demagogue and combined brash but intoxicating rhetorical gifts with a free spending of oil revenues to turn himself into a leading figure on the world stage’; significantly, ‘his fiery anti-American rhetoric helped to make him an international celebrity’.[34]

Conclusion

We may ask if we should have expected a change in coverage now that Chávez has died. But changing the script now would raise serious, difficult questions. The fact that the British mainstream press sticks so rigidly on-message in covering Chávez's death is not surprising. Power has ways of defending itself, and as some of the reports pointed out, Chávez threatened many vested interests; particularly those of the United States, whose commitment to imposing its interests is well-demonstrated by its intervention throughout the region for well over a century. That Venezuela sits upon the largest known reserves of petroleum, brings upon It a heavy burden – to appease dominant nations and meet their preferences, or face their wrath, which can, and does, take many forms.

Josh Watts researches and writes on international politics and western foreign policy, and their representation in the mainstream media, at http://www.newsunspun.org/.


[1] Hannah Strange, ‘Nation contemplates shaky future without “El Commandante”’, Times, 06.03.13.

[2] Tariq Ali, Pirates of the Caribbean: Axis of Hope, c.2006 (London & New York: Verso, 2008), pp. 70-1.

[3] The Times obituary, in fact makes reference to Chávez being ‘imprisoned but pardoned’ (‘Hugo Chávez’, Times, 06.03.13).

[4] Jonathan Watts and Virgnia Lopez, ‘Venezuelans grieve as their president loses struggle with cancer’, Guardian, 06.03.13.

[5] See, among others: William Blum, Killing Hope: US Military & CIA Interventions Since World War II (London: Zed, 2003); Noam Chomsky, Turning the Tide: U.S. Intervention in Central America and the Struggle for Peace (Boston: South End Press, 1985); Greg Grandin, Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism, c.2006 (New York: Holt, 2010).

[6] Girish Gupta, Donna Bowater and Jon Swaine, ‘Venezuela in mourning as Chavez loses cancer battle’, Daily Telegraph, 06.03.13.

[7] This is a term used by Greg Philo and Maureen Gilmour, in their conclusions from an audience study, wherein they surveyed participants’ knowledge of their own country’s history and crimes (Greg Philo and Maureen Gilmour, ‘Black holes of history: public understanding and the shaping of our past’, in David Miller, ed., Tell Me Lies: Propaganda and Media Distortion in the Attack on Iraq, London, Pluto Press, 2004).

[8] Simon Tisdall, ‘A chance for a fresh start’, Guardian, 06.03.13.

[9] Noam Chomsky, ‘Who are the Global Terrorists?’, in Ken Booth and Tim Dunne (eds.) Worlds in Collision: Terror and the Future of Global Order (Houndmills, et al.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002).

[10] The UN Truth Commission stated thus: ‘Whilst anti-communism, promoted by the United States within the framework of its foreign policy, received firm support from right-wing political parties and from various other powerful actors in Guatemala, the United States demonstrated that it was willing to provide support for strong military regimes in its strategic backyard. In the case of Guatemala, military assistance was directed towards reinforcing the national intelligence apparatus and for training the officer corps in counterinsurgency techniques, key factors which had significant bearing on human rights violations during the armed confrontation’ (Guatemala: Memory of Silence, Report of the Commission for Historical Clarification, Historical Clarification Commission, 1999, http://shr.aaas.org/guatemala/ceh/report/english/default.html).

[11] Lesley Gill, The School of the Americas: Military Training and Political Violence in the Americas (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2004)

[12] Cited in Lars Schoultz, National Security and United States Policy toward Latin America (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1987), pp. 283-4.

[13] Simon Tisdall, ‘A chance for a fresh start’, Guardian, 06.03.13.

[14] ‘Hugo Chávez’, Times, 06.03.13.

[15] David Aaronovitch, ‘Last hero of hard Left was Fidel with an electoral mandate . . . and a Christ complex’, Times, 06. 03. 13.

[16] William Dobson, ‘End of Chávismo spells trouble for the Castros’, Financial Times, 06.03.13.

[17] Jonathan Watts and Virginia Lopez, ‘Venezuelans grieve as their president loses struggle with cancer’, Guardian, 06.03.13.

[18] Front Page, Independent, 06.03.13.

[19] David Usborne, ‘Hugo Chavez dies following lengthy battle with cancer’, Independent, 06.03.13.

[20] Benedict Mander, ‘Chávez loses two-year battle against cancer’, Financial Times, 06.03.13.

[21] David Usborne, ‘Hugo Chavez dies following lengthy battle with cancer’, Independent, 06.03.13.

[22] David Blair, ‘Former bus driver who faces power’s hard realities’, Daily Telegraph, 06.03.13.

[23] Hannah Strange, ‘Successor faces huge challenge to bring unity’, Times, 06.03.13.

[24] David Blair, Jon Swaine and Girish Gupta, ‘Chavez, anti-American emblem, dies aged 58’, Daily Telegraph, 06.03.13.

[25] Girish Gupta, Donna Bowater and Jon Swaine, ‘Venezuela in mourning as Chavez loses cancer battle’, Daily Telegraph, 06.03.13.

[26] David Blair, ‘Passing will put to test his claim that Revolution does not rest on one man’, Daily Telegraph, 06.03.13.

[27] Girish Gupta, Donna Bowater and Jon Swaine, ‘Venezuela in mourning as Chavez loses cancer battle’, Daily Telegraph, 06.03.13.

[28] See Samuel Grove, ‘Carroll in wonderland: how the Guardian misrepresents Venezuela’, Red Pepper, 2008,

http://www.redpepper.org.uk/Carroll-in-wonderland-how-the/

[29] Rory Carroll, ‘Hugo Chavez: a strongman’s last stand’, Guardian, 2012,

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/oct/02/hugo-chavez-strongmans-last-stand

[30] Rory Carroll, ‘The poor boy from the plains who became a dynamic, divisive leader’, Guardian, 06.04.13.

[31] Rory Carroll, ‘Who needs Che?’, Guardian, 2009,

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/jan/04/cuba-che-guevara-fidel-castro

[32] ‘Hugo Chávez, Times, 06.03.13.

[33] Benedict Mander, ‘A charismatic populist who leaves behind a divided people’, Financial Times, 06.03.13.

[34] ‘Hugo Chávez’, Daily Telegraph, 06.03.13.

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First published: 08 March, 2013

Category: International, Media

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1 Comment on "The British Press on the Death of Chávez"

By Barbara Dyce, on 09 March 2013 - 00:25 |

Great article! I have been so frustrated in reading all the coverage of western media (for me UK and Canadian media) on the death of Hugo Chavez. He has been described as a dictator, controversial, and much more (mainly negative) - on and on it goes. What I find interesting is that in my own country where the media have been piling it on regarding Chavez, is that they are not anywhere near as critical of our own dear leader. If I were to look at the long list of anti-democratic measures that the Conservative government have put in place, one could easily read into those grievances that our own Stephen Harper is a dictator, that he works in secrecy, that he dismisses and cuts off debate in parliament and pushes his legislation through with his “majority” government. He would sell our natural resources to the highest bidder – Alberta tarsands to China – in contrast to Hugo Chavez; label environmentalists as terrorists and anti-Canadian; cut off access to the Press and choose only those favourable to his point of view to give out information (no questions, please); ignore treaties with First Nations people; place Conservative cronies in places of power (that list is huge). These are just the tip of the iceberg.  About the icebergs – rapidly melting in the Arctic circle and in large part due to the total lack of regard for the environment that this government has shown (witness the latest ads touting tarsands oil as “green” - go figure).Perhaps Hugo Chavez embarrassed the West so he has paid the price by being villified by them. I’d take a Hugo Chavez any day over a Harper or a Cameron, but then, I actually pay and want to pay my fair share of taxes…

Barbara DyceToronto

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