Hugo Chavez was elected to a fourth term on October 7. The victory immediately set off a flurry of United States media reports noting alleged inequities in Venezuelan elections that permit Chavez to continue to hold power. Through coded or overt language, the US media reported how the poor in Venezuela support Chavez but listed off what right wing free market conservatives or neoliberal centrists in think tanks in America consider to be the most dire issues facing Venezuelan society today. The impetus was, even if the elections were actually by some stretch free and fair, the poor do not realize they are voting for a socialist revolution that will plunge the country deeper into ruin.
The Carter Center, an organization founded by former US president Jimmy Carter, monitors elections in countries to help “enhance freedom and democracy.” The AFP reported on October 6, according to the Center, “Venezuelans have no reason to fear the secrecy of their ballots will be compromised by a new electronic voting system when they vote in presidential elections.” The Center “noted that many Venezuelans are concerned that the new electronic system might alert authorities as to how they voted, exposing them to retaliation if they vote against Chavez.” But there was “no basis” for the concern because the “software of the voting machines” were fully capable of guaranteeing “the secrecy of the vote.”
Carter stated before the election in Venezuela, “As a matter of fact, of the 92 elections that we’ve monitored, I would say that the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world.” Indeed, there have been a dozen elections while he has been the leader of Venezuela. One of the elections in 2004 was a referendum, an effort by the opposition to remove him from power that he survived.
Chavez won around 54% of the vote to defeat his challenger, Henrique Capriles Radonski, who won about 45% of the vote. Yet much of the coverage puts emphasis on the opposition with an eye toward investors in the richest one percent of America.
The Los Angeles Times report on the victory is indicative of the type of coverage so far:
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez apparently won reelection by a convincing margin Sunday, with allegiance among poor voters to his socialist revolution trumping dissatisfaction with a stunted economy, rising crime and the increasing polarization of society.
First, it strikes a snooty tone with the word “apparently” inserted in the first line, as if the LA Times doubts that he actually won. The LA Times also lists off reasons for why there is opposition in Venezuela to Chavez and appears to suggest poor people put their loyalty to one man before the good of the whole society.
A blog post at the Financial Times suggests there may be a mass exodus of people leaving the country before the economy experiences more “negative implications.” Matthew Hulbert for Forbes laments the re-election as a setback to the future of free trade in oil markets. And, the AP story uses the word “nevertheless” twice to make it seem like the population is just plain ignorant of political realities.
An opinion editorial in the Wall Street Journal, “Democracy, Chavez-Style,” is far more ideological in its smugness and rejection of Chavez. It comes from Mary O’Grady, a WSJ editor who mostly writes on Latin America and uses the newspaper to promote her free market views.
Thanks to Hugo Chávez, the legacy of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet as the only Latin American military dictator in modern times to voluntarily give up power through the ballot box is preserved this morning. Pinochet looks like more of a hero than ever.
Mr. Chávez “won” the Venezuelan presidential election Sunday by collecting 54% of the vote to 45% for challenger Henrique Capriles Radonski. But he did it with control of all of Venezuela’s government institutions and, more important, near total ownership of the Venezuelan economy. This gave the Venezuelan state the power to directly manipulate voter rolls and ballots and an open checkbook to influence—some would say “buy”—the vote. Mr. Capriles was never engaged in a fair fight.
The editorial is at first glance astounding because it simultaneously lauds the military rule of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet while contemptuously swiping at Chavez. Yet, if one knows world history, this is not surprising. Hero to free market ideologues, Milton Friedman, helped push Pinochet to carry out one of the first instances of economic shock treatment on a people for the benefit businesses and corporations.
Why Free Market Ideologues Celebrate a War Criminal
A group of Chilean economists that came to be known as the Chicago Boys trained under Friedman at the University of Chicago, as part of an initiative to influence the economic future in Chile so the country would not adopt socialist economic policies.
Journalist and author of The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein, wrote in 2010:
After the coup and the death of [Salvador] Allende, Pinochet and his Chicago Boys [including Friedman] did their best to dismantle Chile’s public sphere, auctioning off state enterprises and slashing financial and trade regulations. Enormous wealth was created in this period but at a terrible cost: by the early 80s, Pinochet’s Friedman-prescribed policies had caused rapid de-industrialisation, a tenfold increase in unemployment and an explosion of distinctly unstable shantytowns. They also led to a crisis of corruption and debt so severe that, in 1982, Pinochet was forced to fire his key Chicago Boy advisers and nationalize several of the large deregulated financial institutions.
Chavez is a “dictator” to O’Grady and other journalists because he promotes policies that guard against any US effort to shock the country and turn it into an economic disaster zone. It is this governance by Chavez that induces people like O’Grady to write such preposterous things like, “Dictators don’t walk away from power. They hold it until they die. Pinochet was an exception. Mr. Chávez proves the rule.” Their zealous belief in liberal free markets is why they downplay torture or war crimes carried out by Pinochet.
Omitting the US-Backed Military Coup in Venezuela from Chavez’s Political History
It is important to note, although the reports recount much of Chavez’s history as leader of Venezuela, most of the reports gloss over or entirely omit the fact that the United States was likely behind a failed coup against Chavez in 2002.
The Washington Post’s coverage is one example:
…After coming to prominence in the 1990s after a failed attempt to seize power, Chavez, a former army paratrooper, won a series of elections: referendums that led to a new constitution and ended term limits and a vote that turned back a recall referendum in 2004…
In 2002, The Observer reported, “The failed coup in Venezuela was closely tied to senior officials in the US government, The Observer has established. They have long histories in the ‘dirty wars’ of the 1980s, and links to death squads working in Central America at that time.” Declassified documents, reported on in 2004, indicated the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) “knew dissident military officers were planning a coup in 2002 against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.” The US government did not inform Venezuela there was a planned coup and sanctioned the plan by dissident military officers.
The New York Times, in the midst of the failed coup, celebrated this attempt to remove him from power:
With yesterday’s resignation of President Hugo Chávez, Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator. Mr. Chávez, a ruinous demagogue, stepped down after the military intervened and handed power to a respected business leader, Pedro Carmona. But democracy has not yet been restored, and won’t be until a new president is elected. That vote has been scheduled for next spring, with new Congressional elections to be held by this December. The prompt announcement of a timetable is welcome, but a year seems rather long to wait for a legitimately elected president.
Such is symptomatic of the Washington Consensus, the market fundamentalism that leaders in Washington believe should be implemented or prescribed for any country, especially countries in Latin America with popular leftist movements in power.
It is worth noting that a decade later Washington still engages in “democracy promotion” and, as Mark Weisbrot pointed out ahead of the election, was doing so during this election, as it spent “millions of dollars within the country in addition to unknown covert funds to undermine, delegitimize, and destabilize democracy in Venezuela.”
Washington has turned to this tactic because violence and economic warfare have failed. As Noam Chomsky outlined in his book, Hopes and Prospects, the recent history of interfering in elections in the country:
…After a popular uprising restored the elected government, Washington immediately turned to funding groups of its choice within Venezuela while refusing to identify recipients: $26 million by 2006 for the new program after the failed coup attempt, all under the guise of supporting democracy. When the facts were reported by wire services, law professor Bill Monning at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California, “We would scream bloody murder if any outside force were interfering in our internal political system.”…
Venezuelans Much More Satisfied with Their Democracy Than Americans
Finally, Venezuelans are satisfied with their democracy—a reality that must deeply irritate those whose ideology leads them to oppose policies instituted by Chavez to help the poorest people in Venezuela. From a 2007 poll done by Latinobarometro:
When asked whether they were satisfied with their democratic system, 59 percent of Venezuelans said yes – second only to Uruguay and above the regional average of 37 percent.
On equality between the sexes, equality of opportunity, protection of private property, solidarity with the poor, equal distribution of wealth, and employment opportunities, Venezuela ranked first in the region.
When asked how they would describe the state of their country’s economy, 52 percent of Venezuelans described it as “very good” or “good,” the highest number in the region.
When asked how they predicted the economy would do over the next 12 months, 60 percent of Venezuelans claimed it would do “much better” or “a bit better,” the highest number in the region.
66 percent of Venezuelans expressed confidence in the government, the highest number in the region. The regional average was 39 percent.
Compared to Americans’ satisfaction with their “democratic system,” Venezuelans’ approval is likely much higher than Americans’ approval. Only four in ten, in a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll in 2010, said they were “satisfied” with how “democracy was working” in the US. Three in ten, as of September 2012, were “satisfied” with the direction of the country, according to a Gallup poll.
Venezuelans appear to demand more of their government. They turnout to vote in far greater numbers than Americans (80% of Venezuelans voted in this election). In 2008, even with Barack Obama seeking to make history by becoming the first African-American president, only around 66% of Americans turned out to vote.
The country did not re-elect Chavez because poor people are waging a class war led by a leader intent to further decimate Venezuelan society. They re-elected him because, as Weisbrot has noted, “Poverty has been cut in half and extreme poverty by 70%. And this measures only cash income. Millions have access to healthcare for the first time, and college enrollment has doubled, with free tuition for many students. Inequality has also been considerably reduced.”