Media Depictions of Hugo Chavez

Mimi Dwyer

Politics and Propaganda: Hugo Chavez in the American and Venezuelan Media

Hugo Chavez is one of the most controversial figures in global politics today. Calling himself a “socialist for the 21st century,” he has taken power in Venezuela as a populist and enacted reform that debatably resembles the very caudillo political strongman-ism he purports to oppose. In this paper I examine how the American and Venezuelan medias have responded to Chavez within the larger economic and cultural contexts of their audiences. I conclude that the restrictions on media in the United States and in Venezuela shape and bias responses to Chavez in divergent ways, resulting in a strong, oversimplified western condemnation of Chavez in the United States and stifled response to his leadership in Venezuela. Ultimately, however, the representations of Chavez in both mass media contexts indicate that the private media will tend to support its capitalist economic structure, making social revolution against capitalism difficult. Therein lies the rationale for Chavez’s media control.

Before discussing Chavez specifically, it is important to understand how mass media functions in the globalized world more generally. In the United States, freedom of the press is specifically protected in the First Amendment—open expression in publications like Common Sense was indispensible to the success of the American Revolution. But the face of the American government and the nature of its global presence has shifted. Agriculture conglomerates have replaced the independent, subsistence-driven yeoman farmer, and today America is no frontier but rather the wealthiest, most industrialized, and most corporatist country in the world, the hegemonic capitalist power and poster child of globalization.

The face of the United States media had shifted accordingly. Today, the overwhelming majority of the news media in the United States has consolidated into the hands of a powerful and small group of corporations, the “corporate monopoly” colloquially known as the Big Six: General Electric, Time/Warner, Disney, News Corporation, CBS, and Viacom (Chomsky 43, Free Press Action Fund). The consolidation is recent—in 1983, for example, fifty corporations made up the United States mass media, and through a series of multi-billion dollar mergers and deals in the last twenty-seven years, those fifty have narrowed into six established controllers of the United States print, news, and digital media (MRIC 2005). Public sector news reporting has significant presence only in television, where PBS is the seventh most popular news outlet, and on the radio, which only 13 percent of Americans report as their main source of news (Pew 2009). Private corporations control the vast majority of the popular media, both in the United States and abroad, exported as part of American culture.

While ostensibly the private mainstream media maintains its commitment to freedom of the press—the Newseum in Washington, DC boasts a multi-story First Amendment billboard— profit is what fundamentally drives the Big Six. As the CEO of CBS/Westinghouse said in 1997, “we [the media] are here to serve our advertisers. That is our raison d‘être” (Kilbourne 366). Business is paramount; capital is paramount. This has alarming implications for the integrity of the “free” politicized speech meditated by the corporate press. Ultimately networks as distinct as Fox News and MSNBC, for all their blather and contention, “have the same point of view. The two parties are two factions of the business party” (Chomsky 54). This party’s paramount interest is the perpetuation of the capitalist system that delivers it its lifeblood—the base overtakes the superstructure value of journalistic integrity.

Vladimir Lenin wrote that “imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism” (Lenin ch. 7).  If the mass media is indeed a corporate monopoly, then arguably its consolidation of information has resulted in a sort of “information imperialism” (which China accused the United States of maintaining in January 2010), wherein the media makeup derives from few enough sources that a feeling of consensus or “world opinion” emerges, with a “threat of isolation for those who run afoul of it” (Rusciano 14). The existence of the American media in its current form is predicated on the dominance and perpetuation of the capitalist system; thus the media itself has an interest in vilifying threats to this system.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the American mass media almost categorically expresses hostility and opposition towards Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. Chavez has built a political movement based on the rejection of neoliberal fiscal policies in the developing world, based on the uprising of populist and indigenous revitalization movements, and based on the demonization of the United States as the instigator of the uneven development which keeps countries in the global south dependent on those in the north. His rhetoric is fiery, marked with indictments like “the grand destroyer of the world, and its greatest threat… is represented by US imperialism” (Chavez 2004). US media outlets have responded acridly in kind— for example, according to the Washington Post, Chavez is “Venezuela’s demagogue,” and the New York Times calls him a “potentate.” The mass American media makes efforts to construe Chavez as a rogue totalitarian rather than a representative of socialist opposition to capitalist hegemony more generally—it highlights the discrepancy between his rhetoric and his action, often in ways that depict his rule as despotic.

For example, when in 2007 Chavez announced he was not going to renew the license of RCTV, one of two major opposition stations that commanded 55 percent of the viewership in Venezuela, because of its alleged involvement in a coup plot, the American media reacted as if he had whimsically shut down the station because he didn’t like it. CNN said that “RCTV… is going to be shut down because President Hugo Chavez is not a big fan of it;” the Associated Press said that the station lost its license because it was “critical of Chavez” and the Washington Post said that “Chavez has made clear that his problem with [owner Marcel] Granier and RCTV is political” (Edward 2007). The information was synthesized and delivered in a way that would invariably affect the opinion of viewers, push them to them see Chavez as a madman and tyrant, a disrupter of the peace. Noam Chomsky wrote that the most effective method of influence-shaping (public relations) today is no longer “goon squads and breaking knees” but is rather “subtle and effective.” The enemy or Other is isolated and portrayed as “harmful to the public and against… the common interests of ‘us,’ the businessman, the worker, the housewife… The corporate executive and the guy who cleans the floor all have the same interests” (Chomsky 35). The mass corporate media is the perfect tool for this engineering and homogenization of opinion, because it tells you what you want and value materialistically and morally. In a global/imperialist context that develops certain axioms like ‘democracy and the free market are good,’ the media “derives its power from its capacity to affect a nation’s image, or threaten a nation with isolation, due to the moral judgments it renders on acceptable forms of behavior” (Rusciano 106). Arguably Venezuela and Chavez have been subject to this condemnation, and Venezuelans know that the global/western media conglomerate collectively disapproves of their government, illegitimating it in the eyes of “world opinion” (Rusciano 102). At the same time, the power of the Venezuelan media to respond or enter a dialogue with the American corporate media has declined significantly.

The role of national media in Venezuela has changed drastically since Hugo Chavez’s rise to power.  In previous administrations, the Venezuelan broadcast media had been on its way to “liberalization,” that is, privatization, with fifty-two FM licenses and seventeen national private station licenses issued over the course of the mid-eighties to nineties (Fox and Waisbord 181).  Leaders continuously placed partisan pressure on the private stations, and over time “the relationship between the media and the government could be defined as one of ‘symbiotic dependence’” (Lugo-Ocando 193). Almost completely Venezuelan in ownership (with the partial exception of pan-Latin American Grupo Cisneros, which runs Venevisión), the private companies in Venezuelan media were “committed to institutional stability in order to preserve their own hegemony” (Lugo-Ocando 190). Thus the Venezuelan media became a mouthpiece for the relatively narrow bipartisan political structure of Venezuela, promoting “agreement” by “framing the political debate according to the existing institutional realm,” like the American mass media on a countrywide scale rather than a global one (Lugo-Ocando 190).  The media was free to broadcast political discourse, but it had a vested interest in the maintenance of the political system—for example, after election in 1989, Carlos Pérez’s first official visits were to “the two major television stations, Radio Caracas and Venevisión” (Fox and Waisbord 182). Politics and media had a mutually beneficial relationship with one another.

Hugo Chavez understood the inextricability of the Venezuelan media and political power from the outset of his political career. In 1992, Chavez staged a failed military coup against the government of Pérez, who had instituted neoliberal structural adjustment programs unsuccessfully in the country. The goals of the coup were “the capture and even murder of President Pérez through surprise attacks on the civil and military centers of the country and the control of the media” (Kozekova 3).  The coup failed, but Chavez received one minute of airtime from the Venezuelan press that skyrocketed him to the national spotlight—wearing a red beret and a military uniform, he told Venezuelans the coup had only failed “por ahora,” that Venezuela would see a “better future” (Edwards 2007). The public was fascinated—it was the “first time [it had] heard a public apology from a man in power” (Kozekova 8).

Chavez spent nearly three years in jail for the coup, and in the meantime Pérez’s government fell. When he emerged, he spouted rhetoric as a populist, an opponent of the “squalid oligarchy” in power in Venezuela, an outside reformer in the vein of Bolivar, and a critic of capitalism in the vein of Lenin and Marx (Shifter 2010).  This image has defined his presidency. “Every day I become more convinced,” Chavez said at the World Social Forum of 2005, “That it is necessary to transcend capitalism. But capitalism cannot be transcended through capitalism itself; it must be done through socialism, true socialism, with equality and justice. I’m also convinced that it is possible to do it under democracy, but not in the type of democracy being imposed by Washington” (Sojo 2005). The Venezuelan people wanted an outlet for their frustration with dependency and a government they perceived as pandering to it, and they found that outlet in Hugo Chavez, and meanwhile the Venezuelan media ignored the incredible ratings Chavez was commanding. It is crucial to note that while the private Venezuelan media elite almost categorically opposed Chavez, the citizens that gave them their viewership and driving monetary force adored him. At least at the time, Chavez represented a true upheaval of traditional bourgeois rule, a championing of the llanero[1] ideal. But in reality, just as the American yeoman farmer had bent to capitalist pressures, the llanero had succumbed to the semi-industrial dependent development so characteristic of the periphery. Venezuela imports two thirds of its food and 90 percent of its people live and work in urban areas (Census 2001). Chavez promoted a nostalgia, an appropriation of American capital towards socialist goals in the hopes of a possible return to economic independence, the same agrarian and economic independence that many environmentalists in the United States champion.

Chavez ran for president in 1998, part of neither AD nor COPEI, the two established parties in Venezuela. The Venezuelan media’s political forecasts didn’t predict his landslide victory; nearly “all media outlets adopted anti-Chavez positions… [and] were against Chavez’s candidacy until the very last moment” (Fox and Waisbord 183). When Chavez won by a large margin, they didn’t know what had hit them, and they retreated—in the next few years, the media “seldom referred to the government and voiced few opposing views in their political commentary” (Fox and Waisbord 187). Chavez wasn’t about to let the sabotage slide—he attacked the media in full force. For example, on his daily radio show “Chavez accused the publisher of the leading national daily El Universal, Andres Mata, of orchestrating a campaign ‘against the approval of [Chavez’s new] constitution, against the Bolivarian revolution, against the majority of Venezuelans, against social justice and progress’,” interestingly employing the same subtle ethical manipulation and propaganda to shape conceptions of Mata that public relations in the American media puts towards opinion engineering (Lugo-Ocando 185).

Chavez got to work creating the reform he promised, chipping slowly away at the neoliberal dependency he had resolved to fight. He frequently appeared on and popularized VTV, the state-sponsored media outlet that now commands 25 percent of Venezuelan news viewership. In November 2001, he pushed through 49 laws aimed at the private sector—the laws increased oil taxes and codified governmental land appropriation.  The price of oil was simultaneously plummeting, popular approval of Chavez along with it. As the economy tanked “media owners and their editors used the news—print and broadcast—to spearhead an opposition movement against Chavez,” whose government depended fundamentally on the support of his people, the media viewers. Something had to change, and in April 2002, Chavez changed it. A coup was staged against the government and Chavez disappeared for forty-seven hours. Celebration erupted in the media; channels granted interviews with opposition leaders. Then Chavez reemerged—fully cognizant of who opposed his presidency. And over the next several months, systematic assassinations occurred, along with intimidation and military investigation of the private media.

Restriction of the media has continued throughout Chavez’s presidency in the name of revolution. In 2004, Chavez passed the Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television, which delineated guidelines for media content. For example, it “forbids depictions of violence between 5 a.m. and 11 p.m. on television and radio stations, thereby making it illegal to show… protests.” It also advises that “insulting the president could result in six to 30 months in prison” (Read 2009). Eventually opposition consolidated into two channels that commanded 55 percent of the Venezuelan viewership—RCTV and Globovisión (Wilpert 2007). As discussed above, in 2007 Chavez refused to renew RCTV’s license because he believed it was complicit in a plot to overthrow his government. To this day it remains unclear whether this is true. In 2009, Chavez revoked the licenses of another 34 “opposition” media outlets (AP 2009). In August of 2010, the Venezuelan government somewhat ironically moved to acquire 48.5 percent of the private corporation Globovisión, literally appropriating capitalist tactics to further the Chavez administration’s goals (RSF 2010). While moves like these may be symbolically poignant and on face adherent to the legacy of Bolívar, Chavez needs the support of the media if he’s going to succeed in his revolution. His popularity has declined with the economic decline in Venezuela, and he blames the media for the loss of his people. Chavez said that “if it weren’t for the attack, the lies, manipulation and the exaggeration” of the opposition media, the government would command at least 80 percent of public support, when in reality his approval rating hovers around 50 percent (Chavez 2009).

Another tactic Chavez employs to take the media into the hands of the revolution is to circumvent it completely. Unlike the American media conglomerates, which have struggled in adapting to the proliferation of information that comes with the internet age, Chavez has adeptly maneuvered the changing face of media, and to his benefit. He appears to his people every Sunday on his unscripted state-sponsored television show, Aló Presidente, which often runs over four hours. He maintains a Twitter account with which he speaks directly “@” Venezuelans Tweeting to him, a new interpretation of populist unification contrasting with the traditional media which he sees as representative of larger-than-life American imperial democracy. He uses multiple exclamation points and Tweets little news bytes like  “AgroRevolucion!” and “Socialismo!!” which encapsulate perfectly how Chavez wants the media to function for him—in soundbytes and clips and, a communicator of his top-down populist ideal, unifying his people but controlling them at the same time.

So what do we make of the differences between the face of American and Venezuelan media? First, while the media in Venezuela and the media in the United States both employ propagandized information delivery, in Venezuela the general populace knows its leader is at odds with the “global opinion,” whereas readers and viewers in the United States have moral justification affirmed by the categorical media opposition to Chavez. In other words, the American media has been more successful in shaping the opinions of its public in a unified way. A Soviet correspondent in the US famously noted this difference: “Propaganda in the West is carried out by experts who have had the best training in the world — in the field of advertising — and have mastered the techniques with exceptional proficiency … Yours are subtle and persuasive; ours are crude and obvious … I think that the fundamental difference between our worlds, with respect to propaganda, is quite simple. You tend to believe yours … and we tend to disbelieve ours” (Kawilarang 399). With American media hegemony comes the “homogenization of opinion” (Rusciano 106).  Americans have little hope of enacting overarching change in the structure of their government—stability is well-maintained and the people comfortable, sated. In Venezuela, the political structure is tense, manipulable, transient. This results in a contentious but ultimately more conscientious public, aware of its place in international media opinion.

Correspondingly, Venezuela’s private media is owned on a pre-globalized scale, slowly being controlled by a semi-totalitarian populist leader. But what would the alternative have been for the Venezuelan media? In countless other Latin American countries, globalized media is infiltrating traditional news sources (Rusciano 103). Chavez has prevented that domination.

In the United States the media is self-interested, committed primarily to the perpetuation of revenue intake. And what is free press when a voice costs money? The capitalist media can afford to let opposition speak (so long as it is not too radical) because it is backed by the global economy. But in Venezuela the smaller-scale self-interested media has been slowly stamped out, replaced with top-down reform. Freedom of the press is sacrificed in the name of revolution. In an interview with venezuelanalysis.com, Noam Chomsky said that the “crucial question” of Chavez’s movement is whether popular change can “be initiated by the state… Unless the energy is really coming from the population itself, it’s very likely to fall into some sort of top-down directed pattern,” that is, totalitarianism (Chomsky 2007). But Latin American history has shown countless failed popular revolutions; the separation between power and change is too wide. Chavez’s movement, for all the questionability of its tactics, is a “real historical experiment;” it is something new, an answer to a seemingly insurmountable media and economic American-Western hegemony. It is a reinterpreted top-down dictatorship that in its most idealized form might actually provide an alternative to capitalism.

Ultimately, the contexts of the two media formats are distinct. But they both represent possible responses to this hegemony—muted acceptance or change with some questionable sacrifice of an equally questionable press freedom.

[1]A llanero is a Colombian or Venezuelan plainsman or cowboy. The llanero ideal has been adopted into the Venezuelan national identity as a mythologized symbol of patriotism, independence, connection to the land, masculinity, and contempt for the urban elite.

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