Dealing with Chavismo - Mercedes-Benz Forum

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Dealing with Chavismo

Bolivarian myths and legends
Phil Gunson
1 - 12 - 2006

Phil Gunson is a journalist based in Caracas, Venezuela
(16 October 2006)

The political polarisation of Hugo Chávez's "Bolivarian revolution" in Venezuela is reproduced in the way the phenomenon is reported and assessed. Phil Gunson assails the defects of "solidarity journalism" and calls for a debate about Venezuela based on reality not propaganda.

In the early 1990s, when I first visited Cuba and the Cuban exile community in Miami, their rival versions of history had long since congealed and the two communities were physically, as well as politically, separated by the 145-kilometre-wide Florida strait.

Just off Miami's Calle Ocho, an eternal flame burned to the memory of the 120 or so anti-Castro combatants who died in a battle the exiles call the "Bay of Pigs" while, near the site of that battle, a government museum displayed relics and mementoes belonging to pro-Castro militia members, killed at what Cuban official history refers to as Playa Girón.

Different heroes, different villains. One country, two histories. "A politically ‘neutral' version of the past forty years", I wrote at the time, "exists only in academia; on the streets, history is outlined in the stark black-and-white of ideological extremes."

In Venezuela, whose leftist President Hugo Chávez - about to face his people in the election on 3 December 2006 - is now Cuba's closest ally, a disturbingly similar process is now taking place.

There is the same kind of disagreement over the events of the past few years, in which political polarisation has become widespread. The rival versions of the nature of the pre-Chávez era (the four decades of two-party democracy from 1958-99) are equally incompatible, and the regime has undertaken an extensive rewriting of history from the independence era onwards.

But there is more. It is as if the two sides - supporters and opponents of Chávez - had come to a fork in the road, several years ago. Each is proceeding along a different, but almost parallel, route, and even as they diverge they are still close enough to see and to shout at each other, albeit from an ever-growing distance.

Media and politicians on both sides of the ideological divide - and especially Chávez himself, with his message of division and class conflict - bear a heavy responsibility for this state of affairs. The act of naming is not innocent. "Words", said Venezuelan social psychologist Luisana Gómez recently, "require things to become what we call them."

A question of evidence

But equally disturbing is the way certain myths about the country and its recent history have become so firmly embedded in what passes for the international "debate" on the subject that they are no longer questioned, merely reiterated, by people with no direct stake in the outcome.

I am not speaking here of opinions but of matters of verifiable fact: statements which, if not demonstrably false, are at the very least unsupported by the available evidence, and whose repetition divides us by convincing each side of the bad faith of the other.

Some of these myths are spread by the right. "Chávez gives aid to the Colombian guerrillas", for instance; or "Venezuela is supplying uranium for Iran's nuclear programme".

But much of the responsibility lies with those foreign writers and journalists who have openly sided with the government of Hugo Chávez, whilst regularly blasting his critics for their alleged bias, or worse.

They argue that Chávez must be given credit - and even imitated - for his "revolutionary" programme on behalf of the poor. Yet their unwillingness to analyse the evidence with intellectual honesty is of little service to the masses they claim to sympathise with.

Those who dissent are deemed to do so because they favour inequality, despise the poor and sympathise with United States foreign policy. The possibility that one might hold none of these positions, and yet still disagree with Chávez's methods, is ruled out.

For the most part, the process begins with an uncritical acceptance of the "facts" provided by the side with which one is inclined to sympathise. There can hardly be a journalist in the world who has not fallen into this particular trap more than once. Some stories are, as the shamefaced journalistic adage has it, "too good to check".

But there is a difference between this kind of professional lapse and the construction of an entire edifice built of half-truths and outright falsehoods, followed by the dismissal of anyone who argues otherwise as a pawn of "the imperialist media" (or, if the boot is on the other foot, of "Castro-communism"), and an assumption of unassailable moral superiority.

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