Since the Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez announced in late June he had a cancerous tumour, media around the world have gone into a frenzy of speculation over his health and upped their attacks on his government. And since Chavez has a tendency to confuse support for a state’s right to sovereignty in the face of foreign aggression with open support for its regime (such as Iran, Libya and Syria), it is easy for some journalists to distort the reality of events here in Venezuela.
On 29 September, the Miami Herald published an article by Antonio Maria Delgado who claimed that "sources close to the situation" had information that Chavez had been urgently hospitalised due to kidney failure. A day later, playing baseball, the Venezuelan president held a press conference, calling these types of reports "morbid and inhumane".
Chavez singled out the Miami Herald for criticism. In July the paper also ran a story by Roger Noriega — ex-US ambassador to the Organisation of American States (OAS) — who claimed the former military colonel had few chances of living more than 18 months.
Elsewhere, the commentary has been slightly more moderate — but also inaccurate. Writing on Chavez’s previous medical treatment in Cuba, Virginia Lopez in The Guardian commented:
"For the past 12 years, Chavez has amalgamated a coalition of political actors from across the spectrum under his homemade brand of populist ideology that mixes socialist programmes with Bolivarian instincts and strong anti-imperialist rhetoric aimed chiefly at the main export market for Venezuela’s biggest revenue earner, oil."
While conceding that Chavez has a "magnetic leadership" and "undeniable charisma", Lopez claimed his "popularity has been declining as a result of the country’s severe electricity crisis, acute housing shortage, and one of the highest murder rates in the region."
A few months ago Rory Carroll — The Guardian’s usual Latin American correspondent — wrote: "Venezuela’s tottering economy is forcing Hugo Chavez to make deals with foreign corporations to save his socialist revolution from going broke."
In similar vein, Juan Forero in May wrote an article for the Washington Post with the title: "Chavez’s influence wanes in Latin America". In Forero’s view, Chavez’s authority has declined "as Venezuela’s oil-powered economy has gone bust and concerns have been raised about his governing style, which includes the jailing of opponents."
There are some real economic and social difficulties in Venezuela, but the way neighboring states perceive the country’s economy are different to the views getting a run in the US media.
Until Chavez became ill in June, the foreign ministers and presidents of almost every country in Latin American and the Caribbean were expected to arrive in Caracas for the third summit to consolidate the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). This organisation, whose meeting has now been rescheduled for early December, will effectively work as the new OAS — "without the US or Canada" — according to Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa.
In 2008, in another geopolitical foreign policy initiative which Venezuela promoted, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) was ratified. It is an institution where South American countries can discuss regional matters and Venezuela and Brazil successfully lobbied for UNASUR to have its own South American Defense Council.
Diplomatically both countries state they want South America to be a "zone of peace". Their real intentions seem obvious: to end the US hegemony south of the boarder where Washington-backed military coup d’états, heavy funding for right-wing political parties and invasions have continued well past the end of Cold War. Just look at Venezuela in 2002, Haiti in 2004, Honduras in 2008 and Ecuador in 2010.
Recently, the Obama Administration added four high ranking members of the Venezuelan government to its list of "Foreign Narcotics Kingpins", allegedly for aiding Colombian leftist rebels. It also allocated $US20million to Chavez’s rivals for next year’s elections.
Media conglomerates such as El Nacional, Globovision, and the Cisneros Group, as a Wikileaks cable recently revealed, have also gone as far as to meet with former US ambassador to Venezuela, Patrick Duddy, to discuss editorial approached. And as a study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) noted in September 2010, these private media outlets, together with cable TV, still overwhelmingly dominate the media market in Venezuela.
Despite this opposition, if Chavez’s claims that he is now free of cancerous cells are true, most indicators point towards him winning another presidential term in 2012 with both pro-government and opposition polls placing his popularity in the mid-to-high 50 per cent range.
Here in Caracas, the changes since my last visit in 2005 are noticeable. Gone are the street vendors who distressingly congested the inner city offering everything from clothing and toothpaste to hardcore pornography. The vendors are still around but there are fewer of them and they have been allocated specific markets to work at.
At the San Jacinto market in El Venezolanano Plaza, 24-year-old Harold Niebles notes that, in contrast to working on the streets, it is "much easier to work in a market run by the state" where he can rent a space for his store. Niebles — a street vendor since he was seven — says his main concerns are the market’s safety regulations as there have been "too many fires this year".
When asked if he planned to vote for Chavez in 2012, Niebles, like his co-vendor Luis Hernandez, aged 18, isn’t sure — although his family has benefited from the government’s education and health programs.
Similarly, the Boulevard of Sabana Grande in previous years was overcrowded by street vendors and there was lots of petty crime. One of the capital’s important commercial sectors, the Boulevard these days is full of working class families enjoying themselves. Appropriate street lighting and a stronger police presence have made the difference.
In March this year, the Metropolitan Police was, in fact, officially disbanded and replaced with the new National Bolivarian Police (PNB).
Previously, Venezuela had 134 different police forces. The Metropolitan Police was one of the most notorious in terms of corruption, extra judicial killings and political subservience to local mayors. They were dressed in civilian clothing, police badges and blue raincoats (forms of identification which could be easily removed at their convenience) and any sensible person avoided unnecessary contact with them, as I did in 2005.
By contrast, the PNB has been trained at the new National Experimental Police University having undertaken courses in ethics and human rights. This seems to be producing some positive results: 100 new officers have been expelled due to corruption. In low income areas, the PNB has developed athletic and cultural community programs working with 21,000 children. The administration here is keen to highlight these triumphs but the youth of the PNB’s officers, and their at times passive attitude to physically walking the streets, is also apparent.
In another development, the Chavez administration is engaging in large public works to tackle the country’s housing problem. Known as Gran Mision Vivienda, $US 6.9 billion this year have been allocated to build 150,000 homes.
This project is jointly funded by the state and private banks. On state TV images of hundreds of new homes being given to people are a regular feature. They are sometimes fully furnished if, for example, they are for victims of last year’s floods in the state of Vargas. Chavez claims his administration will build two million homes between 2011 and 2017.
When asked to comment on the disparity between the government’s policies and lack of accurate coverage of Venezuela by foreign journalists, Fernando Travieso — oil expert at the Bolivarian University of Venezuela — was rather blunt. "I think the ones that are in chaos, and it saddens me … are in the north of London with the protests that have occurred due to right-wing measures that have been implemented."
From Travieso’s perspective, journalists in the UK and the US are missing the point. They have plenty of problems to be analysing in their own countries such as the "growing accelerated rates of poverty in the United States". With oil prices continuing to remain around the $US100 mark, and with Venezuela now acknowledged to have the largest crude oil reserves in the world, the government of Hugo Chavez looks set to maintain the economic power to fund its domestic and international policies, in spite of what other political observers may have you believe.
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