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Venezuela's Election: How the Media Views Democracy

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By Mark Weisbrot

Hugo Chavez' landslide victory in Venezuela on Sunday completed a clean sweep for Latin America's left of four presidential elections in five weeks (Brazil, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Venezuela). Chavez's 63-37 percent margin, the largest of 9 presidents elected this year, was no surprise, since it was about the middle of the range for the more reputable pre-election pollsters (e.g. Zogby, AP, Evans-McDonough).

The U.S. and international press, although not as one-sided as the opposition-controlled private media in Venezuela, has often tried to convey the impression that the Chavez government is a threat to democracy. Pre-election and post-election coverage continued this theme: "Venezuelans Give Chavez a Mandate to Tighten His Grip" was the headline of the New York Times News Analysis on Tuesday. The article states that

"his allies already control the legislature and the Supreme Court as well as governorships in all but two states, and where the military, the national oil company and other government bureaucracies and institutions have been systematically packed with Chávez boosters and stripped of opponents.

Now, facing an anemic opposition that could not win in any of Venezuela's 23 states or Caracas, Mr. Chávez is expected to tighten his grip, first and foremost over his own supporters in an effort to prevent challenges to his rule from emerging.

'A priority for Chávez right now is what he calls a 'revolution within a revolution,' " said Steve Ellner, a political scientist at the Universidad de Oriente in eastern Venezuela. "This means a purging process of those associated with corruption or excess bureaucracy. In January you're going to see some heads being chopped.'"

Ellner, for anyone who has read his work, is saying the opposite of what the preceding paragraphs imply. He is saying that Chavez is going to try to clean up corruption and waste, and indeed there has been no evidence lately of "challenges to his rule" from "his own supporters" or that Chavez is worried about such challenges "emerging." Nor does the article offer any such evidence.

Chavez' allies do control the entire legislature, because the opposition - without any legitimate reason, according OAS and EU observers, chose to boycott last December's elections for the General Assembly. "Chavez boosters" were certainly packed into the upper echelons of the military after the military led a coup against the elected government in April 2002. This "packing" would seem not only justified but necessary to preserve democracy after the coup government had kidnapped the president and temporarily abolished the elected General Assembly, Supreme Court, and the constitution.

Similarly, the government's control over the national oil company was necessary to its fiscal viability, and became even more necessary after a management-led strike, the stated purpose which was to overthrow the government, devastated the economy in 2002-2003. In other words, the Chavez government used legal and constitutional means to establish civilian control over the military and government control over a state-owned company that provides nearly half of the government's revenue and more than 80 percent of its export earnings - two changes which would normally be associated with democracy (remember that the shareholders of a publicly owned company are the public, not the management). But these advances, which formed the institutional basis of the free health care, subsidized food, and increased access to education that the poor have received under the present government, are often (not just in this article) presented in the press as some sort of creeping authoritarianism.

The big surprise in the Venezuelan election is that what seems to be a majority of the opposition, including the privately owned and opposition-controlled media, has accepted the results. The opposition did not accept the results of the 2004 presidential recall referendum - which Chavez won 58-42 -- claiming that a massive electronic fraud had taken place, despite the certification of the results by international observers from the OAS and the Carter Center - and the absence of any evidence of such fraud. And as described above, before the referendum they tried several attempts to overthrow the government, including the military coup and oil strike; and after the referendum they boycotted national elections, citing the alleged "fraud" in 2004 as the reason for boycotting.

Before Sunday there was some question as to whether the opposition would accept a loss in this election; most of the Venezuelan private media did not report, for example, the AP poll just 10 days before the election showing Chavez 22 points ahead, instead reporting fake polls showing a close race. According to reliable polls, most of those who voted against Chavez believed that their candidate (Zulia state governor Manuel Rosales) was going to win. The stage was set for a repeat of 2004 or worse. But for a variety of reasons, including the opposition candidate himself, the more pragmatic wing of the opposition won out, which is one of the most important and surprising results of this election. And one that most of the US media seems to have missed, probably because they have generally seen threats to democracy as coming almost exclusively from the government - rather than the opposition, despite the historical record.

Meanwhile, the headlines tell the story of how different news agencies view US-Venezuelan relations in the aftermath of the election: "Chavez says he is willing to talk to Bush" says the German Press Agency (DPA); "Chavez snubs U.S. overture for dialogue" writes the Associated Press, covering the same events. The Los Angeles Times, relying on US officials and other anti-Chavez sources, says "Chavez wins a third term and keeps up anti-U.S. rhetoric; American officials say the Venezuelan leader holds the key to any effort to ease tensions between the two nations."

More on this part of the story later.
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