Alarm over Chavez Ignores Venezuelan Complexity

Article excerpt

Hugo Chavez's latest moves to deepen his Bolivarian Revolution are setting off alarms in Washington, on Wall Street and around the world, with critics charging that the Venezuelan president is finally implementing what they feared all along--a Fidel Castro-style dictatorship.

Chavez, critics say, is shutting down a television station, creating a single-party state, nationalizing key industries, threatening perpetual re-election, ruling by decree and vowing to impose "21st-century socialism."

President George W. Bush declared Jan. 31, "I am concerned about the undermining of democratic institutions. And we're working to help prevent that from happening." John Negroponte, Bush's former intelligence czar who is moving to the No. 2 spot under Condoleezza Rice at the State Department, said Chavez's "behavior is threatening to democracies in the region." Rep. Connie Mack, R-Fla., called the Venezuelan leader "the most dangerous man in the Western Hemisphere."

On the surface, Chavez's actions may seem troubling indeed. But the situation in off-rich Venezuela is a little more complex than Bush, the mainstream media and Wall Street analysts are making it out to be. Take for example the Venezuelan government's decision not to renew the license of RCTV television network when it expires in May.

At first blush, that would certainly seem to be reason for alarm--shutting down a news outlet simply because the government doesn't like its editorial bent. But RCTV is not exactly your average television network. In April 2002, it promoted and participated in a coup against Chavez in which a democratically elected president was overthrown and "kidnapped" for two days by military rebels until a counter-coup and large street protests swept him back into power.

For two days prior to the putsch, RCTV suspended all regular programming and commercials and ran blanket coverage of a general strike aimed at ousting Chavez. Then it ran nonstop ads encouraging people to attend a massive anti-Chavez march on April 11, 2002 and provided wall-to-wall coverage of the event itself with nary a pro-Chavez voice in sight.

When the protest ended in violence and military rebels overthrew the president, RCTV along with other networks imposed a news blackout banning all coverage of pro-Chavez demonstrators in the streets demanding his return. Andres Izarra, a news director at RCTV, was given the order by superiors: "Zero chavismo en pantalla"--"No Chavistas on the screen." Izarra quit in disgust and later joined the Chavez government as a spokesman after the Venezuelan media blacklisted him.

On April 13, 2002, after the coup-installed president, Pedro Carmona, eliminated the Supreme Court and the National Assembly and nullified the Constitution, media barons, including RCTV's main owner, Marcel Granier, met with Carmona in the presidential palace and, according to reports, pledged their support to his regime. While the streets of Caracas literally burned with rage over Chavez's ouster, the television networks ran Hollywood movies such as "Pretty Woman."

This was not an isolated "mistake" or misjudgment on the part of RCTV. It was part of a long-running effort to undermine Chavez. Eight months later, along with other networks, it promoted a strike that shut down Venezuela's crucial oil industry, buffeted the economy and threatened to drive Chavez from office. For two months, RCTV canceled all regular ads, replaced them with spots denouncing Chavez and calling for his ouster, and gave nonstop coverage to the shutdown. In the end, Chavez defeated the strike, although the economy was devastated and hundreds of businesses collapsed.

Before he resigned, Izarra saw firsthand how RCTV made every effort to tip the scales against Chavez, when the government and opposition groups held huge competing demonstrations in March 2002, for example, the station manager ordered Izarra to give blanket coverage to the opposition march. …