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Misrepresentation left, right and centre in Venezuela protests

Dictatorship or direct democracy? Depends who you ask. EPA/Miguel Gutierrez

Opposition protests against Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro over crime, inflation, and shortages show no sign of abating, and the March 5 anniversary of Hugo Chavez’s death will only add to the sense that Venezuela’s politics have reached a critical point.

The truth is that Venezuela’s recent history and current situation are far too complex to be summed up in a news report. But instead of acknowledging this complexity, supportive and critical commentators alike overwhelmingly emphasise the facts that fit their narratives and omit those that do not. As a result, the country remains widely misunderstood and misrepresented. After fifteen years of fruitless debate, the same old obfuscations are at work in coverage of the current protests.

For one, coverage of Venezuela is tainted by selective readings of historical context. Critics of the government tend to detach the Chávez era from history, comparing it to either an imaginary Venezuela whose great promise has been squandered or an idealised vision of our own “developed” politics and societies. This has the effect of making corruption, oil dependence and inflation, all age-old staples of Venezuelan political economy, seem like the work of a government that is hapless at best and malevolent at worst.

Yet inflation, currently at 56%, averaged 50% between 1990 and 1998; Venezuela has been failing to “sow the oil” since it first came out of the ground, and corruption is sadly as longstanding and entrenched as the expectation that every Venezuelan woman should look like Barbie.

Pro-government depictions, meanwhile, remind us that shoot-to-kill repression of riots in 1989 left thousands dead, that the superficially peaceful power-sharing era beloved of the opposition was peaceful only for the mere 32% not in poverty (in 1991), and that this charade of democracy excluded all but the ruling elites – who have since become the government’s fiercest opponents.

Between the lines

But just as the opposition cannot negate the past, neither can the government negate the present. Claim though they might that the Bolivarian project is one of gradual evolution and permanent revolution, after 15 years in power there is no getting away from the fact of improvised governance, deficient planning, and shoddy public services.

Another misleading assumption is the idea that Venezuela’s institutions are approximate analogues of our own. For instance, when critics talk about threats to media freedoms, the assumption is that Venezuela’s media landscape is basically comparable to Britain’s. But would it ever occur to a British TV channel to promote the overthrow of a democratically elected government, as various Venezuelan stations did during the attempted 2002 coup? Outraged viewers would turn on them, regulators would step in, and a functioning judicial system would wield the threat of sanction against any infringement of the law.

None of these deterrents can be assumed in Venezuela. Virtually all the major newspapers (El Nacional, El Universal, El Mundo) and the most popular TV stations (especially RCTV and Globovisión) have always been stridently anti-government. Despite this, critics commonly claim that the government has achieved complete media dominance by shutting down RCTV and launching various public channels. The government’s supporters counter that RCTV played an integral part in the 2002 coup, and point out that its broadcasting licence simply expired in 2007 – adding that opposition channels still account for the lion’s share of viewing figures.

Again, both sides are being highly selective. The basic claim of censorship is clearly spurious –- most BBC-bred Brits would wince at the unabashed venom of the Venezuelan media –- and to focus on the number of channels rather than viewing figures is like saying that BBC Parliament and CBeebies outweigh ITV. Yet while RCTV did actively enable the coup, the “non-renewal” of its licence was so arbitrary as to constitute closure, and viewing figures of opposition stations are warped by the popularity of their telenovelas (soaps).

The underlying problem is that there is only one media outlet that gives anything like a balanced view, the newspaper Últimas Noticias. Domestically, most media outlets serve only as echo chambers that allow each side to be outraged by the sound of its own voice. They accept the claims of their own side without investigating them too thoroughly, thereby providing a gloss of journalistic credibility. Internationally, however, this offers critics and supporters alike a broad palette of local colour with which to augment the authority of their own accounts.

In the wake of the entirely different Arab Spring, Twitter has also become fair game as a shortcut to the “reality on the ground”. But unlike the institution of journalism, Twitter doesn’t even pretend to carry an ethical obligation to fair representation. Truths, distortions, and lies alike reach self-selecting groups who then amplify them, creating a buzz around the themes that push their own buttons.

Much of this misrepresentation stems from the assumption that voices in Venezuela’s own national debate are speaking in good faith and trying to give an accurate picture of life in the country. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Instead, political polarisation in Venezuela is so extreme that it’s almost impossible to find a disinterested observer. Whether for motives pure or putrid, the government itself obviously seeks to retain power. The rich are threatened by redistributive policies, and the poor by the possibility of their elimination. Most think tanks represent particular interest groups, with the colour of their pompoms the only difference in their cheerleading. Students and academics are threatened by any redirection of funds in the education budget. Even polling companies can be divided very clearly into pro- and anti-government camps, producing freakish distortions of reality.

New Cuba or faux socialism?

The government’s critics regularly trot out the most grotesque distortion of all, that Venezuela is a dictatorship. But if it really is, it’s the kind of dictatorship in which real elections are held frequently, people are free to form rival political parties, and citizens can openly criticise and protest their government. I have a photo of a graffito that reads, with no hint of irony, “Vote No to Dictatorship!”. Government supporters, meanwhile, present Venezuela as a beacon of “21st Century Socialism”, where bottom-up governance gives a real voice to the little man while co-operatives and worker management socialise and diversify the economy.

The cruelest twist is that the government’s self-proclaimed progress towards socialism allows the opposition to depict Venezuela as the new Cuba. This conjures up a fantasy land unrecognisable to anyone who has set foot in the country. It ignores the fact that millions more Venezuelans are now enfranchised than prior to Chávez, with voter turnout and faith in democracy at levels the UK would be proud of. But it also overlooks the private sector’s increased share in GDP, and rampant consumerism fuelled by skyscraper-sized billboards for imported luxury goods.

As the Venezuelan anthropologist Fernando Coronil put it, for most Venezuelans socialism meant whatever Chávez said it meant. Foreign commentators are insensitive or indifferent to this fact, preferring to cherry-pick whichever claims and counterclaims best support their chosen narratives.

The only antidote to misrepresentation of Venezuela in the foreign media is recognition of what we don’t know. This has been my own lesson, and where once I might have allowed the BBC, The Guardian, or The Times to do the legwork for me, I no longer can. But if we simply want reinforcement of what we already think, we can do as most do on Venezuela and simply choose our own abusers.

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