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Toni Solo: Tommy Cooper Journalism

Tommy Cooper Journalism
The Guardian And The Observer On Venezuela

By Toni Solo

Tommy Cooper was a much-loved British comedian who died tragically but perhaps fittingly on stage during a performance - people thought he was fooling. Cooper's stock in trade was to pose as an incompetent magician. One of his catchphrases, offered as he explained the astonishing feat he was just about to perform was "just like that..." as the heralded magic flatly refused to happen. Britain's Guardian and Observer newspapers seem to have adopted Tommy Cooper as the inspiration for their journalism on Venezuela. One can see this in differing degrees in several articles published over the last month or so.

In a long account of a visit to Caracas published on May 7th, the Observer's Foreign Editor Peter Beaumont persistently threw in Cooper-like efforts to render Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez in an image short on facts but long on tendentious comment - "just like that....". It is hard to rebut concisely the kind of argument Beaumont constructs, because it is done with an unfair adjective here, a failure to include fact there, a dodgy or baseless interpretation, a half truth, all mixed in with good legitimate reporting of real people's views and opinions.

The adjectives

Beaumont: "self-appointed champion against 'the murderer' Bush"

In fact Chavez has only attacked Bush and other members of the US government in response to the attacks they have made against him as Venezuela's elected President. As well as the spurious description "self-appointed champion", Beaumont throws in the designation of Bush as a murderer by Chavez from some unreferred-to context creating the impression that Chavez tends to be the aggressor in these exchanges. Chavez seldom initiates these verbal attacks. But when he defends himself and refuses to be cowed, journalists like Beaumont rearrange matters to present Chavez as some kind of aggressor. Chavez's offence seems to be that he has the self-respect to defend himself, his governmental colleagues and their policies.

Beaumont: "a farcical coup that lasted two days in 2002"

Dozens of people died in the vicious coup mounted by the anti-democratic Venezuelan opposition supported by its US government backers in April 2002. Chavez himself narrowly escaped being executed. Why trivialize as "farcical" that traumatic event that has defined so much of what has happened subsequently in Venezuela? Self-evidently, by trivializing that defining trauma in Venezuela's recent history, Beaumont demeans and diminishes the later political and economic achievements of Chavez and his governmental colleagues. His treatment also renders mysterious the deep hostility Chavez and his colleagues feel about the regime of George W. Bush - something that makes Beaumont's portrayal of Chavez as an enigmatic, unstable, authoritarian maverick easier to carry off.

Beaumont: "Chávez, a visceral opponent of the influence of America in a Latin America that, like his 19th-century predecessor Simón Bolívar, he would like to lead, has found his dangerous global stage."

How can Beaumont be privy to Chavez' motives? Perhaps Chavez would "like to lead" Latin America. We do not know. Nor does Beaumont. But it's a necessary line to add to create the picture of a quasi-megalomaniac. Having created the implicit suggestion of a megalomaniac Chavez hunting for regional pre-eminence Beaumont throws in the adjective "dangerous" to define the "global stage"? Clearly, Beaumont wants us to think that Chavez is a principal contributory factor to whatever is dangerous about the "global stage", that Chavez courts this danger. But the danger does not come from Venezuela.

Venezuela is not threatening preemptive wars of aggression or any other kind of aggression against anybody. Through the Mision Milagro programme, Venezuela is facilitating hundreds of thousands of people from many countries - some Venezuelan allies, some not - to recover their sight. Beaumont neglects to mention this huge regional health initiative. The US bombs and shells tens of thousands of civilians to death in Iraq and Afghanistan. Venezuela saves and enhances thousands of lives. But "Chavez has found his dangerous global stage" - just like that...

Absent facts

One is confronted here by the extraordinary doubletalk of the mainstream international media. At this point it may help to show how the argument developed by careful placing of suggestive adjectives is reinforced by leaving out pertinent facts. Beaumont writes, "Chávez has constructed alliances with everyone the White House hates most - including the Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Evo Morales, the left-wing Bolivian President and former coca farmers' leader." But the Chavez administration has constructed alliances with almost everybody, US friends as well as US enemies. Venezuela in recent years has concluded agreements with Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Brazil, and Uruguay.

If it has friendly relations with Iran it also has friendly relations with Algeria, lately a US ally. Venezuela enjoys good relations with most European countries and, as a member of OPEC, maintains cordial relations with US allies like Saudi Arabia. Why focus on two countries whose governments the Bush regime happens to dislike? Clearly, that focus reinforces the idea of danger and provocation, throwing the responsibility onto Chavez rather than where it belongs, with the criminal gang of warmongers in Washington. On the available facts, Venezuela seems to be working out a carefully balanced foreign policy based on Latin American economic integration with a diverse range of foreign trading partners in the rest of the world. The Observer does not report those facts.

In the same context, Beaumont writes "On issues as diverse as the anti-globalisation movement, Latin America's future political shape, oil, Iran, and even America's relationships with India and China, Chávez is there stirring it up." But all those issues are of vital concern to Venezuela. Globalization threatens Venezuela's sovereignty. How could Venezuela not be anxious about "Latin America's future shape? Venezuela is a member of OPEC, should it not be concerned about oil? Iran, India and China are all important potential partners for Venezuela's future trade and energy policy - does Beaumont think Chavez should not be worried about US policy toward them? Once one stops to try and think rationally about what Beaumont is writing, the portrait of Chavez and Venezuela he is trying to present falls to pieces. Remember that phrase "stirring it up", by the way. It turns up again elsewhere.

In the domestic Venezuelan context, Beaumont mentions the deep polarization in Venezuelan society reflected in the alleged use of the lists from the 2004 recall vote petition "This so-called 'Tascón list' was subsequently used to deny signatories government jobs and contracts." But Beaumont fails to note that the vindictive Venezuelan opposition has also made extensive use of discrimination on the basis of political affiliation, denying Chavistas employment or contracts. If Venezuelan society is divided in that way, it may well have plenty to do with much of the Venezuelan opposition's vengeful behaviour towards anyone who does not agree with them. One would not know that from reading Beaumont's article. He notes that the Venezuelan opposition are referred to as the "escualidos", but fails to explain that there may be extremely good reasons why that should be so.

Dubious interpretation

Beaumont's piece begins with an account of part of one of the "Alo Presidente" television programmes President Chavez uses to try and communicate with people at grass roots. "Chávez governs his country via his show." Beaumont asserts...just like that... One has to pinch oneself to remember that this is the Observer's Foreign Editor writing, not some punk junior reporter. Later one discovers "the truth, as everybody knows, is that Chávez governs almost alone through a politics of improvisation." In fact, the truth "as everybody knows" is that people like Beaumont, highly-paid, top-calibre professional journalists have enormous feet of clay just like everyone else.

His absurd remarks reproduce time-honoured, old colonial stereotypes. They obviously derive from the persistent racism of the white, bourgeois Venezuelan opposition who hate indigenous-descended Chavez because his tactical flair and strategic acumen make them look stupid. It is extraordinary that Beaumont should reproduce that racist opposition image of Chavez in his article, albeit in an indirect way. The truth "as everybody knows" is that the Chavez administration in Venezuela works much the same as any other government does, with its own fair share of success as well as bureaucracy, venality and cock-ups.

Later on, we learn, "as Chávez the failed golpista was jailed, Chávez the democrat was born. The two characters have never been reconciled." Beaumont, pop psychologist, has Chavez all worked out, see? Beaumont quotes opposition politician Petkoff comparing Chavez to the chameleon character Zelig, who imposes himself retrospectivly on important historical events. Some subliminal residue from Petkoff's remarks must have rubbed off there. Beaumont was there when Chavez was gaoled in 1992, Beaumont in at the birth of Chavez the democrat. "Oh no he wasn't!" cries the astonished audience....just like that.....

More seriously, Beaumont trots out the usual false, trite Venezuelan opposition complaints, "there is the fact that in his seven years in power he has consolidated personal control over all of Venezuela's institutions". "He has packed the judiciary with his supporters and rewritten the constitution to suit his ends". "He has done little to restructure Venezuela's oil business".

The caricature could hardly be more complete. The claim about Venezuela's oil business is so grossly wide of the mark it hardly merits attention - the State oil company has completely overhauled its relations with industry players in Venezuela and with actual and potential regional customers. Chavez' administration is full of strong personalities who back him because they agree with his political vision, not because they are his slavish followers. One has only to think of people like Ali Rodriguez or Raul Baduel among dozens of other talented individuals committed to building a prosperous, strong Venezuela based on principles of social justice and international solidarity.

The Chavez government's judicial appointments conform to general practice in most of Latin America or the United States for that matter, where the judiciary tends to be less politically independent than judges are perhaps generally perceived to be in the United Kingdom. Venezuela's may well the most democratic constitution in Latin America if not the world. What other country has statutory provision for a possible recall vote half-way through a presidential term? So perhaps it may well be true that Chavez and his political supporters have re-written the constitution for their own ends. But those ends are profoundly democratic not, as Beaumont implies, sinister moves towards dictatorship.

Stereotypes and broad brushstrokes

Beaumont's article, despite a few quotes from Chavez supporters, clearly sympathises with the Venezuelan opposition and their international supporters in the US and Europe. That general stance is also repeated constantly in the Guardian's coverage, either through outright falsehood or unsupported comment. For example, in a note (apparently credited to Angela Balakrishnan) to a piece by Larry Elliot on May 20th we read, "Venezuela's president Hugo Chavez angered the US by stopping oil supplies to them." This is a downright falsehood. To the contrary, Venezuela has maintained supplies to the United States and even provided cut-price heating oil to tens of thousands of low-income families in the northern US through the recent winter- something not even domestic US petroleum giants could be bothered to do.

Along with outright untruth, Guardian journalists file copy written or perhaps edited in the best traditions of melodrama and caricature. So we get Duncan Campbell writing vaguely about a "pink tide" washing across Latin America "now lapping as far as Mexico to the north and Brazil to the south." Why Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina get written out of the picture is left blank - Venezuela has agreements with all those countries. It seems that if any left wing politician voices opposition to the neo-liberal nightmare of social misery and economic piracy inflicted on the impoverished majority in Latin America, it somehow has to do with Hugo Chavez. Remember Beaumont's "stirring it up"?

The editorial policies of the Observer and the Guardian on Latin America and Venezuela seem designed to reinforce US government propaganda. The overall message is that Chavez is "dangerous". He provokes regional instability. The instability is not the direct result of decades of failed neo-liberal social and economic policies. Oh no. Chavez is a cunning indigenous Svengali hypnotising regional politicians like Evo Morales, Ollanta Humala, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador - as if these tough, seasoned politicians were witless pushovers. The infantile strip-cartoon simplicity of this propaganda is its perverse beauty. It suits the bite-sized gobbets of easily digestible pap required to feed the corporate media disinformation machine.

In an otherwise pretty reasonable piece of reporting on Bolivia from the Guardian of May 6th, we find that Dan Glaister also considers that Chavez "is not averse to stirring things up in the region." Glaister tells us that Chavez has "intervened in the forthcoming Peruvian and Mexican elections" but not exactly how. In fact, what right wing candidates have done in both Peru and Bolivia is attack Chavez, presumably knowing full well that Chavez will respond in kind. Both Alan Garica and Peru's President Toledo initiated attacks on Chavez, as did President Vicente Fox of Mexico and various of his colleagues.

But we do not hear that Bush, Rice, Garcia, Toledo, Fox or all the others are "stirring things up". We never hear that they are provoking instability with their scurrilous attacks on Chavez. It seems as if in all of Latin America there is only one person who ever raises their voice. Or that the pernicious machinations of the United States seldom has anything to do with anything. Or that the endless pressure and extortion practised by giant energy, mining and agri-business multinationals may somehow be neutral. Glaister goes on to note referring to last year's summit in Argentina, that Chavez' presence "at the Mar del Plata summit was almost as divisive as that of President Bush" neglecting to note that the public dispute engendered there resulted from provocative remarks from Mexico's President Vicente Fox which Argentina's President Kirchner moved quickly to squelch.

Glaister too offers an unsupported deprecatory sneer that Chavez' "efforts to spread his munificence has sometimes been counterproductive." Encouraging to note that even professional journalists get their plurals mixed up, but some attempt at detail might be helpful, some clarification as to what Chavez' alleged "munificence" might actually refer. Is Glaister referring to the Venezuelan government's policy of promoting solidarity and complementary exchange in trade, energy, healthcare, education and culture between peoples as in the Peoples Trade Treaty signed with Bolivia and Cuba at the end of April, to which Glaister assigns the briefest of passing mentions?

No. Glaister seems to be referring to some mythical giant Chavez who straddles South America like a latter-day colossus scouring the continent for opportunities to "stir things up". Chavez is no longer a person, a man elected to be President of Venezuela, working in concert with his ministerial colleagues and the governments of neighbouring countries. Chavez has become a mysterious natural force capable of the most fantastic and generally sinister feats, a kind of Sauroman of Caracas, looming over the region...just like that

In another piece from the Guardian stable of Tommy Cooper imitators, this one from June 3rd by Simon Tisdall, Chavez-Sauroman mutates into a "self-styled socialist revolutionary who seems hell-bent on recreating cold war-era confrontation with Washington." In a piece focusing largely on Nicaragua, Tisdall spreads the falsehood that Venezuela is supplying "cheap fuel for Sandinista voters". In fact, the Venezuelan State oil company has signed an agreement with the Nicaraguan association of local authorities, AMUNIC, to supply fuel and urea to all 151 municipalities in Nicaragua, regardless of political affiliation.

Tisdall's fatuous error, presumably the result of poor research, propagates the standard US government propaganda line of a Chavez-Sauroman figure cynically and ruthlessly abusing his country's oil wealth to extend his nefarious influence and control. But it is the Bush regime that is hell-bent on confrontation, pursuing precisely the same strategy of imperialist intervention and aggression that it has always applied to governments who refuse to submit to its will. Part of that aggression is a cynical manipulative propaganda campaign with which the editors of the Guardian and the Observer seem content to string along.

Instability in Latin America results from decades of political and economic failure on the part of the imperialist powers, their proxies like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and their allies among local political elites to address poverty. That failure seldom if ever figures prominently in corporate media accounts of political and economic affairs in Latin America except as a regrettable, inscrutable backdrop. It hovers in exile in the disinformation limbo where the corporate news media banish all inconvenient facts.

Politicians like Hugo Chavez, Carlos Gaviria, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, Ollanta Humala, Evo Morales, Daniel Ortega and many others are trying to work out how best to use their countries' resources to achieve a just settlement for their peoples, to give them a decent life. Readers seeking reliable, serious, factual analysis of the challenges they face and their efforts to meet those challenges will generally not find it in the Guardian or the Observer. Tommy Cooper style if-you-didn't-laugh-you'd-cry bathos, on the other hand, is there aplenty...just like that....


toni solo is an activist based in Central America - contact via

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