The dishonesty of the French media their coverage of the abortive coup in Venezuela

Article published on July 9, 2003
community published
Article published on July 9, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Or, how the irresponsible use of the power to inform means an elected president, forced to resign and illegally imprisoned by the military, can become a putschist overthrown by public demand.

During the night, between 11th and 12th April, the Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, who had been in power since December 1998, was overthrown by a military coup. Two days later, the followers of the constitutional President ousted the insurrectionary government, and Chavez returned triumphantly to power. The French media, once again displaying political complacency, did not use the expression coup dEtat, but used the putschists terminology and interpretation in talking of resignation (cf the title of Jean-Michel Caroits article in Le Monde, Saturday 13 April 2002, Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, forced to resign), a term copied that same evening by national TV news. As the Attorney General of the bolivarian Republic of Venezuela should have pointed out, there is a strict procedure to be followed in the case of the resignation of the President of the Republic; if there had been a resignation, it would have come before the National Assembly and the vice-president would have taken over as head of state. Some of the media went even further, calling it a mysterious resignation, indicating that they were unable to find the exact facts and so were offering their own unique interpretations. This type of reporting is particularly regrettable because a journalists career is supposedly based upon research. The aforementioned article, in which the Chavists responsibility appears as both cause and justification of the seizure of power, does not consider whether President Chavezs supporters can be blamed for the tragic events preceding the failed coup (13 dead and over 100 injured) or not and for their part they insist that the opposition militia fired first or whether the jury is still out, as the human rights organisations are diplomatically saying. M Cariot should be less extreme in tomorrows article (the nature of the coup no longer seems doubtful, but Pedro Carmonas usurpation of presidential power has meanwhile been fully accepted), but by then the other written and televisual media will have repeated this interpretation of the provisional conquerors, and no newspaper or TV station will feel it necessary to provide any correction. Self-appraisal is not part of the culture of the media revelation prophets. After Saturday night, Venezuela disappeared from the news; the truth had been ascertained the day before.

A coup? Yes, it was Chavez in 1992!

Even better, if there had been a coup, it was understood that it would be related to Hugo Chavez. This is because it was often repeated that the person in question was a former putschist lieutenant-colonel (six years before he was elected!); the fact that he was then elected and re-elected, democratically and by huge majorities, did not seem to be the essential information. The rare facts that were given on Friday-night TV news sandwiched between a report on Palestine, the international news of the day, and another on the unavoidable national event, the French presidential election have been presented in such a way, as those who analyse information well know, that few significant formulas can impress viewers who have been kept in ignorance of Venezuelas internal politics. They have become aware of the resignation of a man who probably came to power through a coup.

But the public also retained this brief statement that was emphasised by some of our media: 80% of Venezuelans live below the poverty line. It would presumably have taken too long to explain that a poverty line does not measure absolute poverty, but rather the number of people in a country whose income is lower than a certain proportion of the average income: Venezuela, the worlds fourth-largest oil supplier, has always been one of the most inegalitarian countries in the world, a situation that existed long before Chavez came to power. The bolivarian revolution that he intends to lead in spite of the fact that his term of office began with the catastrophic floods that ravaged the country (but which he has never mentioned again) clearly explains why he has been exceptionally popular, since 1998, amongst the poorest sections of society. His mutual friendship with Fidel Castro, when opportunely recalled, is of the type to encourage the blend of two completely different regimes.

When poor analysis leads to misinformation

When the Venezuelan peoples uprising confirmed Chavez in his role, the media simply concluded that the situation was changing very rapidly, proving their inability to analyse it. They will have been constantly following events, seeing both the beginning and end of each stage of the crisis. The editorial of Le Monde (Sunday 14th / Monday 15th April) was already analysing the causes of Chavezs definite failure (Several weeks ago, Hugo Chavez, more radiant and chatty than ever, confirmed that the risk of a military coup against him was nil, and he could imagine himself as head of the bolivarian revolution for years to come () Today he is in prison, and the Venezuelan people were unable to hear his final words from his own lips). In order to support this version of events, a front page article in the same newspaper reported that peace reigned in Caracas and the Director of the Institute for Higher Education in Latin America, most certainly an expert, explained the reasons for Chavezs fall on page 5, which appeared notably similar to the reasons behind the fall of the Peruvian dictator Alberto Fujimori and the FMIs good Argentine pupil Fernando de la Rua (sic). When faced with such misinformation, we have to re-establish the true facts and put forward an interpretation that allows people to understand this failure.

Chavezs Venezuela is one of the most democratic countries in South America. Even those opposed to the Head of State recognise the lack of attack on media freedom, in spite of the continued violence in the way the media, who are still loyal to a former discredited political class, have spent the past three and a half years railing against the dictatorial regime that has allowed them freedom of expression. Few Western regimes would accept such systematic challenging (isnt that true, Mr Berlusconi?). The main thing is to note that it was this Venezuelan voice that was most successful in making Western journalists listen, connected to their Venezuelan colleagues through belonging to a professional community.

The regimes opponents are in the minority in Venezuela.

The general strike begun by the opposition should not let the impression grow that the regime is unpopular. If Chavezs great initial support has declined, the patriotic Chavist supporters have given him, since 1998, majorities that would make our Western leaders green with envy: 59% of valid votes in the March 2000 presidential election, 13 of the 23 States at the regional elections and 70% of deputy seats in the August and December 2000 ballots, and 59% of valid votes at the referendum having resolved the crisis between the executive power and the syndicates controlled by the social democrat opposition and several of these leaders of course figured in the insurrectional government created by the patron of Venezuelan patrons.

During the weeks preceding the coup, the united opposition right and left, employers and former union leaders wanted to have their electoral revenge in the street. However, the massive demonstrations by the patriotic followers proved that they could not bring it onto this territory. When the coup was announced, Chavezs supporters rose up spontaneously in the working-class areas of Caracas to try and show resistance to military strength, although in vain. But the French media decided to turn their attention to a handful of putschists who attacked the Cuban embassy in Caracas. When those defending the elected president organised themselves, the insurrectional government was defeated in just a few hours; once again, through lack of foresight or duplicity, the French media had shown a biased view of events.

The coup marked the attempt at rebellion by groups who felt threatened. One of the points made by the anti-Chavist group is President Chavezs implied demagogy. Without much effort at coherence, their criticism denounces a concomitant supposed absence of social reform and legal adoption of laws that are designed to pave the way for social revolution. The modest commitment of beginning an agricultural reform is already seen as unacceptable in the time of triumphant liberalism. Changes to the management of the army or of the public oil company, public functions whose nomination comes under the discretionary power of the whole government, were not accepted by their former holders. Chavez played a key role in the OPEC countries joint oil price increase, provoking terror amongst liberal western countries that cannot stand southern countries making a profit from one of those rare situations where northern industrial countries are dependent upon them. What was worse, Chavez then met with Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, causing anger in America. It would not take a great deal more for some people to regard the Venezuelan president as another Fidel Castro, and as the new creator of socialist revolution.

In reality, in the view of his opponents, Chavezs bolivarian revolution has the major flaw of wanting a national independent policy in the eyes of the USA, the IMF and the OMC when, under cover of a neo-liberal globalisation that Chavez has always denounced, rules are fixed that forbid, notably, the return of autocentric development policies chosen by the majority of Third World countries just before gaining independence.

The insurrectional government was preparing a revolutionary reaction. General Pinochet and his associates had acted in the same way to overthrow Salvador Allende, stirring up social revolt and turning to the CIA. Except that now it is no longer necessary to keep up the story that the military are acting independently of the Chicago boys who detained those holding economic power in Chile: the Venezuelan counterpart of Baron Ernest-Antoine Seillière, Pedro Carmona, wanted to take power directly by proclaiming himself President of the Republic. At the same time, he announced the dissolution of Parliament, the Supreme Court and the national electoral council without forgetting to swear allegiance to the USA regarding his economic intentions. The speed with which the putschists put their team together confirmed, if it was really necessary, that the coup had been planned in minute detail.

This reaction can be described as revolutionary inasmuch as it relied on the most corrupt and least popular sectors of the Chavist majority, who were always prepared to join those currently powerful: in particular, hundreds of millions of dollars had been misappropriated by a section of the Venezuelan army into the framework of the Bolivar 2000 plan to fight poverty. The insurrectional power was not in the majority here, and in order to become so, they bought supporters by distributing payments or eliminating supporters of the former power, using methods far more brutal than those denounced the day before, and whose first stage would have been announced by the announcement of the dissolution of the democratic institutions.

Silence reigns in the European Union

After the news of the coup, the price of a drum of oil dropped 6% in New York; Wall Street was confident. As for the European Union, with Caracas just as with Palestine, she contented herself with hoping for an end to the violence. After guaranteeing, with their silence, political and social unrest as long as the opposition had not seized power, European governments had the same discussion as the insurrectional government when they called in a joint statement with Washington for a return to peace, a national agreement and for the reestablishment of democracy, wary of saying whether they believed it had been flouted by the dictator Chavez or President Carmona European governments found it neither necessary nor relevant to distinguish themselves from Washington. But the enlargement of the European Union will surely allow an increase in chances amongst member countries leaders, some of whom can see further ahead than others