Crunch Time in Caracas By William Bowles

13 August 2004

Never even in Latin American history has the media been so directly involved in a political coup. Venezuela’s ‘hate media’ controls 95% of the airwaves and has a near-monopoly over newsprint, and it played a major part in the failed attempt to overthrow the president, Hugo Chávez, in April [2002]. Although tensions in the country could easily spill into civil war, the media is still directly encouraging dissident elements to overthrow the democratically elected president – if necessary by force.
Maurice Lemoine, Aug 2002, Le Monde Diplomatique[1]

This coming Sunday 15 August, the infamous Recall Referendum takes place in Venezuela. For those of you not familiar with the situation in Venezuela – fifth largest producer of oil on the planet and 10% of it going to that insatiable guzzler of the stuff, El Norté, the US – in 1998, the country voted into power a president, Hugo Chávez Frias who incurred the wrath of the imperium by daring to promote the interests of the poor and the dispossessed of the country who constitute some 80% of the population.

The Western media has consistently misrepresented events in Venezuela and aside from the more rabid expressions, has done so through a quite sophisticated manipulation of the facts. So for example, a BBC story on the media in Venezuela managed to present the story as essentially that of two ‘equally balanced’ forces, the Chávez government and what the BBC euphemistically refers to as the ‘independent’ press neglecting to mention the fact that the ‘independent’ media consists of three corporations that between them control 95% of the press both electronic and print. But the BBC’s story creates the impression of a monopolistic state-controlled media bent on controlling what the populations read and sees. This is how the BBC article introduces the story:

“Nowhere is the polarisation of Venezuelan society more apparent than in the frequent attacks on media workers, coupled with government threats to shut down independent TV and radio outlets.”

It compounds the illusion by telling us:

“So far this year, the government has broadcast 39 official transmissions on national television and radio, which shunt all scheduled programming off air while they run.”
‘Venezuela’s media war’, BBC News, 6 March 2003 [2]

But what are the issues and why does the Western media adopt such an antagonistic attitude toward Venezuela? After all, the internal affairs of a country whether one agrees with the government’s policies or not, shouldn’t warrant the kind of hysterical condemnation that we have seen ever since Chávez was democratically elected as president in 1998.

“Employers, a corrupt trade union, the Church, the middle classes and the media, with the help of dissident generals, all calling themselves ‘civil society’, mounted a coup last month against the elected president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez. Senior officials of the Bush administration welcomed the potential removal of a leader whose independence has been anathema to Washington. But ordinary people and loyal soldiers turned out to resist the coup. They prevailed. So Chávez stays in power for now.”
Le Monde Diplomatique, by Maurice Lemoine May 2002 [3]

That the ruling oligarchy conspired with the United States to overthrow the Chavez government drew virtually no condemnation from Western ‘democracies’. Indeed, this is how the New York Times welcomed the attempted coup:

“Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator.” [Chavez] “stepped down after the military intervened and handed power to a respected business leader.”
New York Times Editorial, April 13, 2002

And although the announcement was premature, failing an actual dictator, the capitalist press was forced to label Chávez a “would-be dictator” in order to justify the coup attempt.

Along with many of South America’s countries, Venezuela had long been ruled by a tiny elite of wealthy land-owning oligarchs, propped up by the US, who in its predictable topsy-turvy way, talks endlessly of democracy but never flinches at overthrowing one if it feels its interests or those of its ‘clients’ are threatened.

Such is the case with Venezuela, in fact Venezuela is something of textbook example of the way the US works its wonders of turning day into night and vice versa. The storyline is simple some might say simplistic in its formulation hinging as it does on well-worn clichés repeated ad infinitum and propagated by a compliant press. After all, regardless of national origins, the property-owning classes are united by one thing – defending their property.

The issue is not merely about oil, it is about principle, namely, do countries have the right to pursue their own economic and political policies, policies that don’t coincide with those of the US? And critically, what happens to those countries when they don’t tow the line?

“Venezuela is currently in the eighth week of a national strike called by the largest labor federation, Fedecámeras, and the Coordinadora Democrática, an opposition umbrella group. Much of the Venezuelan media has openly supported the strike and opposition calls for President Chávez to step down.”
‘Venezuela: Media Freedom Threatened’, Human Rights Watch, New York, January 25, 2003

This quote was taken from the US-government supported Human Rights Watch report on Venezuela. What the report fails to mention is that the organisations that it names, Fedecámeras, and the Coordinadora Democrática are US government funded and supported. Fedecámeras for example, gets major funding from the USAID supported US labour organisation AFL-CIO and that Coordinadora Democrática gets major funding from the National Endowment for Democracy, another front organisation for the US. Overall, throughout 2001-2003, the US government channelled 1 million dollars into these and other anti-Chavez organisations, some specifically created for the sole purpose of overthrowing Chávez.

The corporate media’s agenda is synonomous with that of Western governments. Hence following the failed coup of April 2002, the New York Times, in lock-step with the US government rolled out the clichés calling Chávez a “a ruinous demagogue,” and described Venezuela as needing “a leader with a strong democratic mandate” in spite of the fact that Chávez had been democratically elected.

Following the failure of the 2002 US-backed coup attempt, the NYT went on to say:

“We hope Mr. Chavez will act as a more responsible and moderate leader now that he seems to realize the anger he stirred.” [4]

In other words, if you don’t tow the line, be sure you will be punished one way or the other. The Chicago Tribune using even more brazen flouting of its own, supposedly democratic credentials tells it like it is:

“It’s not every day that a democracy benefits from the military’s intervention to force out an elected president.”

Coups it seems are okay with the ‘land of the free, home of the brave’ as long as they get rid of governments that pursue independent policies.

“Chavez’s Ouster Is No Great Loss.”

“if there is a winner in all this, it’s Latin American democracy, in principle and practice.”
NY Newsday

The FAIR piece from which these excerpts were taken quite clearly reveals the double-standard used by the corporate media when it comes to what democracy really means and how much they’re concerned about upholding it. Across the corporate media board, the coup is presented as a ‘lesson’ to Chavez to be a good boy and to do as he’s told or else!

US intentions are clear: to label Venezuela a threat to the Americas and to the US. The US News and World Report for example, describes the Chávez government as follows:

“The oil-rich but politically unstable nation of Venezuela is emerging as a potential hub of terrorism in the Western Hemisphere, providing assistance to Islamic radicals from the Middle East and other terrorists, say senior U.S. military and intelligence officials.”
U.S. News and World Report [6]

The story, condemned as a complete falsehood by Chávez and without any foundation in fact, follows the predictable line utilised by the US: ties to ‘Islamic’ terrorists, links to Cuba, drug smuggling, ties to Colombia’s FARC. The same story goes on to say:

“Says one U.S. official: “The Cubans are deeply embedded in Venezuela’s intelligence agency.” Castro and Chavez are so close, they are said to talk by phone every day. Cubans also form part of Chavez’s personal bodyguard detail. There is ample evidence, officials say, that “Cuba provides military training to pro-Chavez organizations” that have been set up to safeguard Chavez from coup attempts like the one he survived last year. None of this surprises U.S. officials who have been watching Chavez. “He decided to follow the Cuban model long ago,” says one, citing speeches he made in 1994 and 1998. Chavez is sending some 53,000 barrels of oil monthly to help Castro’s cash-strapped Cuba. And large numbers of Venezuelan military personnel have also been sent to Cuba for training.” [7]

Failing to oust Chávez by foul means, the next step was to utilise the Venezuelan government’s own, democratically inspired rules and attempt to get rid him by ‘fair’ means, the Recall Referendum. The law, enacted by the Chávez government became the rallying cry for the oligarchy and immediately, the corporate media presented Chávez as being opposed to it.

The Referendum, required that 20% of the electorate vote for a recall which if successful, would mean that Chávez would have to step down. Motivated by the US through its surrogates, the US-funded ‘democratic opposition’, the Recall is the next attempt to remove the thorn in the side of US imperialism.

However, Chávez has made it clear that the present government would continue in office with his vice-president taking over as president. [8]

But all the indications are that Chávez will win the referendum, something the US felt sure when it embarked on this, its latest ploy, would topple Chávez, once again under-estimating the strength of feeling amongst the ordinary people of Venezuela, who have not been intimidated by coup attempts, externally financed strikes nor thinly veiled threats of intervention.

Irving Kristal’s online journal In the National Interest (supported by the Nixon Center and Irving Kristal’s print journal, National Interest magazine) makes it quite clear what it’s all about:

“More fundamentally, Venezuela under Chavez potentially poses a challenge to U.S. policy objectives, leadership, and core values in this hemisphere. Chavez has sought to build a counterweight to the United States on a range of key questions.”
In the National Interest [9]

So what are US policy objectives in the region? Venezuela represents not only 10-15% of US oil imports but an independent voice that speaks for the dispossessed and the poor. His refusal to bow to US pressure over Cuba and his defiance in the face of mounting US pressure to step down (made all the more humiliating with his references to potential oil deals with China that could replace the US as Venezuela’s major customer and threats to switch to the Euro for oil payments). Moreover, Chávez has made it clear that if the US invades either directly or through a third party, oil exports to the US will be terminated.

Times have indeed changed. The failure of US policy in Iraq has made it abundantly clear that the days of submitting to US hegemony, at least in South/Central America are over. In the past whenever such challenges took place, Chile, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Panama and so on, the US was quick to subdue such resistance by one means or another. But Venezuela is not Haiti, nor is it Iraq with a ready-made ‘demon’ at its helm. ‘In spite of spending over $2 billion in financing a client regime in Colombia has come to nought. ‘Plan Colombia’ is dead in the water. With US military power tied down in the Middle East and just as importantly, its strategy exposed for what it is, severely limits its ability to use the military power it undoubtedly has.

Much hinges on the outcome of the referendum this coming Sunday, whether Chávez wins or not, for it will come down to whether or not the US is prepared to risk an invasion in order to slap the upstart down. Chávez has made it abundantly clear that such an act will be resisted with all the force the country can muster and perhaps just as importantly, the whole world will be watching.


1. ‘How Hate Media Incited The Coup Against The President’ by Maurice Lemoine, Aug 2002, Le Monde Diplomatique.

See also the excellent NarcoNews piece ‘Three Days that Shook the Media. Online Journalism’s Finest Hour Exposed and Reversed a Coup’, April 15, 2002. A fine example of the power of electronic journalism to defeat the beast at its own game.

2. ‘Venezuela’s media war’, BBC News, 6 March 2003

3. WHO RULES: ELECTED PRESIDENT OR SELF-APPOINTED CIVIL SOCIETY? Venezuela: a coup countered, Le Monde Diplomatique, May 2002.

4. ‘U.S. Papers Hail Venezuelan Coup as Pro-Democracy Move’, FAIR Media Advisory, April 18, 2002.

5. ibid

6. ‘Terror Close to Home In Venezuela, a volatile leader befriends Mideast, Colombia and Cuba’ by Linda Robinson, U.S. News and World Report, October 6, 2003.

7. ‘Why Venezuela Matters’ by Michael Shifter. In the National Interest

8. “Chavez has announced that even if he did step down and hand over the government, it would only be to another “revolutionary” government — his vice president would become president. He’s advised that he’s taken steps to strengthen the military, calling up reservists and setting up a people’s militia.” ‘CRUDE TALK: US & VENEZUELA DANCE “THE JOROPO”’, by Suzan Mazur. From the Wilderness June 11, 2004.

9. ‘Why Venezuela Matters’

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