If we read the newspapers and watch TV in the United States, we are told that President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela is a "dictator," "authoritarian," "a threat to democracy" in his own country and the region, and "anti-U.S." But leaders who try to empower poor people are generally vilified in the media and hated by those in power. Martin Luther King, Jr. now has a national holiday named after him, but when he was leading marches in the Chicago suburbs or denouncing the Vietnam War, the press treated him about as badly as they treat Chavez. And King was seriously harassed, threatened, and blackmailed by the FBI.
The idea that Venezuela under Chavez is authoritarian or dictatorial is absurd, as anyone who has seen the country in the last nine years can affirm. Most of the press there opposes the government, more so than in the rest of the hemisphere - including the United States. Chavez and his allies have won ten elections, the most important of which were all certified by international observers. Last month Chavez lost a referendum which would have abolished term limits on the presidency and ratified a move toward "21st century socialism." It should be remembered that this is a "socialism" that respects private property and the private sector - which is a larger share of the economy that it was before Chavez took office.
Nonetheless, after losing by a razor-thin margin, Chavez not only immediately accepted the results but last Sunday announced a shift of policy in line with the electorate's wants. He said that the government would slow its efforts at political change and concentrate on solving some of the voters' top-priority problems, such as crime and public services.
Chavez's relations with the Bush Administration and the rest of the hemisphere are also commonly misrepresented. The standard media description of the U.S. role in the military coup that temporarily overthrew Chavez in 2002 is that the Bush Administration gave it "tacit support." But "tacit support" is what the Administration gave to the opposition oil strike in 2002-2003, which devastated the economy in another attempt to overthrow the Venezuelan government. In the April 2002 coup, the Administration actually funded opposition leaders involved in the coup, according to the U.S. State Department. White House and State Department officials also lied to the public during the coup, in an attempt to convince people that the change of government was legitimate.
Rather than apologizing for supporting these attempts to overthrow and destabilize Venezuela's democratic government, the Bush Administration went on to fund further opposition efforts, and continues to do so today - including funding of the recent student movement in Venezuela, according to U.S. government documents. Is it any wonder that Chavez does not have kind words to say about Bush?
Chavez is not the Bush Administration's only target in the region. Just this week Evo Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president and another anti-poverty crusader, repeated his denunciation of Washington's support for right-wing opposition forces in Bolivia. Most of South America - including Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Uruguay - has left-of-center governments who understand that the Bush Administration's hostility toward Venezuela is really about the U.S. losing illegitimate power over sovereign governments, in a region that Washington considers its "back yard." They have - including President Lula da Silva of Brazil - consistently defended Venezuela.
In Venezuela, the economy (real GDP) has grown by 87 percent since the government got control over its national oil industry in early 2003; poverty has been cut by half, most of the country has access to free health care, and educational enrollment has risen sharply. Venezuelans have repeatedly elected Chavez for the same reasons that Americans are voting for Barack Obama - they see him as representing hope, and change, in a region that needs both.
This column was distributed by McClatchy Tribune Information Services on January 9, 2008.