The media's misunderstanding of Venezuela

Hugo Chavez is definitely going to lose, isn’t he?

In the run-up to this year’s Venezuelan election, one thing is clear. The incumbent, Hugo Chavez, may lose this time. Indeed he probably lost in 1998, 2000, 2005 and every election contested. At least that’s what we can judge from British news media coverage. Tales of a “shock victory” and of winning an “unexpected majority” will no doubt animate reporting after, as is almost certain, Chavez wins.

It is unsurprising that reporters in the UK remain confused after each election. After all, the business and private media elite take great pride in assuring the world that real Chavez supporters are few, and those that there are are largely brainwashed.

Indeed mention Hugo Chavez to a reasonably well-informed person in the UK and the response will probably be one of suspicion. The outspoken president of Venezuela does manage to get himself noticed, but rarely with a favourable reception in the British press. Often those who may otherwise support a left wing movement that has made significant advances in social welfare at a time when the West seems only capable of punishing the neediest know little of such progress but a good deal to be cautious of.

The challenge is to understand how the vague notions that there’s something perhaps illegitimate, undemocratic and maybe corrupt about the Venezuelan president emerge. To this end, it helps to look to the source of most people’s information on foreign affairs – corporate news.

Venezuela was hardly on the news radar in 1989, the year of the Tiananman Square massacre, when repression of protests in Caracas against IMF-imposed austerity led to a massacre of roughly as many as perished in China. However, when Hugo Chavez was first elected ten years later the press did take interest.

Chavez won a landslide victory in 1998, with 56 per cent of the vote. A new constitution was passed in 1999, supported by 72 per cent of the electorate, all parliamentary votes have been won by Chavez’s supporters since, and Chavez has been re-elected President with between 59.8 per cent and 62.8 per cent of the vote.

Despite this democratic mandate, as Chavez began to confront Venezuela’s internal elite and its allies in the US, reporting on Venezuela was found to be biased in a number of studies (1). One I've conducted examined 10 years of BBC online coverage. Within a year of Chavez’s election, the BBC reported that “Opposition leaders in Venezuela have appealed to the international community to intervene to protect democratic rule” (12 April 1999). Four months later it had reported that Venezuela was already a dictatorship.

Few reports referenced Chavez’s electoral legitimacy, and only a tiny percentage even mentioned the widespread social programmes implemented by the government.

At times the BBC’s reporting was beyond comprehension. A subheading in one article referred to the 2002 coup as “Restoring Democracy”. Despite the coup leader having assumed office by military force, the BBC reassured us that “In forming a transitional government, Venezuela has looked not to an existing politician, but to the head of the business leaders’ association”. What was meant by “Venezuela” was obvious yet unexplained.

There is much to be concerned about in Venezuela, as any honest supporter of the government will admit: corruption, crime, inadequate water supplies, repression of journalist by all sides, inadequate housing... the list goes on. Yet a dominant theme in BBC online news reports throughout the 2000s was the legitimacy of the president.

It should therefore be no surprise that a scoping survey I conducted this year (2) found that 20 per cent of respondents thought Venezuela was a dictatorship (only 46 per cent knew it was a democracy), and only 40 per cent thought Chavez was elected by a fair vote.

The same study of the UK press identifies interesting trends. Sixty percent of articles published by six major British newspapers between March 2011 and February 2012 characterised Chavez as “mismanaging”, “threatening”, “misguided or dishonest” etc. Only six per cent included positive characterisations. Much of the coverage of Venezuela’s foreign relations focussed on Iran and Libya, which, whilst problematic in the eyes of many, are not very dissimilar to Britain’s relations with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

Again, many of the progressive policies introduced in this period were roundly ignored. There was apparently no room to mention the proposal to construct 1,200 public healthcare projects, the free treatment of 100,261 people for visual impairment, the Special Contribution Law for Oil to ensure that oil profits be shared among the Venezuelan people, or for news that the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean’s found poverty to have been halved in Venezuela between 2002-8 (in spite of the coup and the oil industry lockout). The introduction of a plan to assist up to one million poor children in leisure activities passed without mention, as did the launch of a mission to build two million houses. The sequestration of “idle land” belonging to collapsed banks passed without comment.

There was little or no reporting of USAID funding of “the opposition”, nor of opposition attacks on pro-government journalists. It was also unimportant that a Colombian senator accused Venezuelan Presidential candidate Capriles of having paramilitary ties in Colombia.

We did hear that the person the Express called “Venezuela's crackpot wannabe dictator” was, according to The Times and Telegraph, teetering near the edge, facing growing hostility from Venezuelans. It is indeed a long-established trend that before each election the number of stories predicting Chavez’s decline increases dramatically.

The concern of many in the Bolivarian movement is that such stories act as priming for the inevitable announcement from “the opposition” and perhaps from the odd US diplomat the elections were questionable or perhaps even invalid.

The big news was Chavez’s cancer, the story of which read as an allegory for Venezuelan politics. The Sun told us that “medics claimed” and “sources said” “bungling surgeons” “botched” the operation on Chavez, leaving him just months to live.

It’s not difficult to see the links between the “botched” operation, Chavez’s health and the fate of Venezuela. In its article “World’s worst dictators”, the Times found Chavez’s cancer may lead to the fall of a “dictator”. One may assume that with the cancerous dictator gone, Venezuela would be healed.

In spite of this prospect, the Telegraph informed us that without an “authoritarian” to rule, colleagues in government would initiate a power struggle that would lead to crisis at “unprecedented levels”.

It also used the opportunity to remind us that “Critics accuse [Chavez] of authoritarian instincts, mismanaging the economy and squandering billions of dollars of oil revenues”. Given that his only well-wishers seemed to be Castro and Ahmadinejad, Chavez’s cancer was a good opportunity to note that “His stridently anti-Western foreign policy and vigorous promotion of his “socialist Bolivarian revolution" across Latin America has left him with few allies beside President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran”. Kirchner, Zayala, Rousseff, Correa, Ortega, Humala, Morales and Funes must have felt somewhat jilted.

The few times policies in Venezuela get mentioned, more often than not they act as vehicles for speculation on Chavez’s prospective threats to democracy.

The policy to repatriate Venezuelan gold reserves from the UK was designed provide for economic stability and further economic integration in Latin America. But we hear in the Times that “others suggested” Chavez’s  was motivated by his worry “about international sanctions in the case of violence during the presidential elections ... the transfers will allow him to keep control of the country if he refuses to accept defeat”. Presumably that’s why he “planned to siphon off Venezuela's gold wealth for personal gain.”

It is no surprise then that the British public’s perceptions of Venezuela, on the left as well as on the right, are largely of a dysfunctional state ruled a megalomaniacal tyrant.

Venezuelan politics can be difficult for British journalists to report outside liberal democratic and bureaucratic capitalist frameworks. It is true that there are genuine concerns about the political situation in the country. The concerted efforts to destabilise the government over the past 14 years have met with government responses that have restricted the freedom of some media outlets, and have not lessened the existing tension between social classes.

Vehemently anti-Chavez news reports are rare in the UK press, but this does not negate the softer power of anti –Chavez voices, whose claims often frame reporting.  These voices also often act as the originators of memes that spread around copy.

There was the odd expression of old-fashioned imperialism, as when the Telegraph told us Iran was “audacious” by launching a Spanish language Iranian television channel in “America’s backyard”, a month after the Times reported Ahmadinejad’s “tour of America’s backyard”, but in the main the memes of “opposition concerns”, political instability, and the threat of Chavez dominated.

Many of these memes arise from rumours and speculation that circulate in Latin American news and opinion programmes, and from discussions in well-to-do parts of Caracas (where most correspondents are based). One need spend only a few minutes in conversation in an Alta Mira cafe before one is struck by tales of government wrongdoing.

The selection of memes reflects the affinities between the dominant culture of UK journalism and preoccupations of Western states. Yet the need for information, and the rarely adhered to professional ethic of balance, provides some space for filler memes from the “other side”. For example there was an admission that Chavez has some support, but that was only in reproduced Reuters copy that reported he “appeared on the balcony of his presidential palace in front of thousands of supporters”.

There was also the odd reference to the 2002 coup. The same sentence, that Chavez was the target of a failed coup attempt that year and the claims of plots against him, was reproduced in four articles in different papers published in July 2011, seemingly pasted from agency copy. It’s probably worth noting that of those four mentions, one was in an piece titled "Chavez's absence makes rivals and older brother grow bolder" (Times), and one in a piece titled "Region in turmoil as Chavez reveals battle with cancer" (Times).

One of the biggest restrictions on accurate journalism has been one of resourcing. With foreign reporting budgets – especially covering Latin America – ever reduced in most news companies, the reliance on agency copy, stringers, and domestic media is increased. But when this is received with ideological suspicion of a government, the latter will always be at a communicative disadvantage. So too, the beneficiaries of government social policies are marginalised when they lack international communicative power.

In the meantime corporate media audiences remain largely uninformed should. They’ll know of this or that spat, of some concerns about democracy and a little about a president who seems rather like a tyrant. No doubt they will be surprised at the outcome of the election, and will take the opposition’s challenge to the legitimacy of the vote as necessary.

(1) Castillo, A. (2003) ‘Breaking Democracy: Venezuela's Media Coup’ Media International Australia #118 pp145-156; Abalo, E (2012) ‘First hegemony, then democracy: On ideology and the media discourse on the coup against Hugo Chávez’ Observatorio Journal, vol.6 - nº3 (2012), 105-128; Gill et al (2006) ‘Covering Chavez in U.S. media: How the elite newspaper reports a controversial international figure. Investigación y Desarollo 14(2), 240–267; Salter, L. and Weltman, D (2012) ‘Class, Nationalism and News: the BBC’s reporting of Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution’, The International Journal of Media and Cultural Politics 7(3)

(2) A random selection of 84 people

Dr Lee Salter is a Senior Lecturer in Journalism at the University of the West of England

A supporter of Chavez wears a homemade mask of him as during his campaign closing rally in Caracas. Photograph: Getty Images
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Is Switzerland about to introduce a universal basic income?

A referendum on 5 June, triggered by a 100,000-strong petition, will determine whether the country transforms its welfare state with a monthly no-obligations cash handout available to all.

The Office Cantonal de l’Emploi (OCE), Geneva’s unemployment administration, is what you might expect of a modern bureaucracy. Not exactly Kafka-esque, it moves slowly but rationally: take a ticket, wait your turn, learn which paperwork is missing from your dossier, repeat. Located in a big complex of social administration behind the main train station, the office is busy for a region with an unemployment rate between 5 and 6 per cent, well below the European average. The staff, more like social workers than bureaucrats in dress and demeanour, work hard to reinsert people into the job market: officials can be responsible for over 40 dossiers at a time.

Objectively, Switzerland is a good place to be out of work. For a low-tax country the welfare system is robust. On condition of having worked and paid taxes in the state for over 12 months, a newly-unemployed is assured 70-80 per cent of his previous salary for a period up to 2 years: ample income in a country with some of the highest average wages in the world. In practice, the system is a hybrid between the OCE (which tries to get people back to work) and union-allied social insurance bodies (which take care of monthly payments) and is complex but effective. There are welfare trade-offs – easy firing, expensive healthcare – but Switzerland is far from a free market machine without a safety net.

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It seems strange that such a well-oiled system could soon be obsolete. On 5 June, Switzerland will hold a referendum on an initiative to introduce a universal basic income (UBI): a guaranteed, no-strings-attached, monthly payment of 2,500 Swiss francs (£1,784) for each legal resident. Driven by a popular initiative which collected the requisite 100,000 signatures, the UBI would revamp the welfare state by streamlining its core into this single monthly cash transfer. No more obligations to apply for a certain number of positions per month in order to “qualify” for your handout: you could choose to continue working and earning, or you could lead a life of leisure. The existential fear associated with finding, and maintaining, employment would disappear.

Last month, a “robot rally” was held in Zürich to drum up support for the initiative. Hundreds of badly-disguised campaigners paraded through the city advocating a futuristic social contract between man and machine: according to these robots, as they become more advanced, displacing more and more blue and white-collar jobs, the only solution is a UBI allowing for dignified coexistence. Robots must be our friends, not our foes, they claimed. This common refrain of digital disruption is a core tenet of the campaign and echoes a zeitgeist debate in Switzerland around the future of work and technology. The concept of a “Fourth Industrial Revolution”, championed by Klaus Schwab, Executive Chairman of the Geneva-based World Economic Forum, has risen from soundbite to serious topic. Schwab says that current shifts in AI and connected technologies amount to “nothing less than a transformation of humankind”, one which will need solutions guaranteeing some sort of a minimum-income for all.

A record-breakingly large poster in the Pleine de PlainPalais, Geneva. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty

But the ego of an epoch tends to historical self-aggrandisement. Hasn’t technological change always been an issue? In the opening scene of the 1986 Only Fools and Horses episode “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie”, Rodney complains about computers and mass unemployment in Thatcherite Britain: “How many people have been put on the dole by a robot what [sic] can build a car?” Digital advances aside, this is hardly the case in Switzerland, where the average unemployment rate is 3.7 per cent. Che Wagner, spokesman of Basic Income Switzerland, the organisation behind the popular initiative, concedes that the country is not suffering from any “emergency problem”. Yet it is precisely the triad of “political stability, economic wealth and a strong liberal culture of self-determination” which makes Switzerland an ideal testing ground for opening the debate. Whereas welfare politics have traditionally aimed to solve problems, this initiative is a more positive affirmation of how best to organise an affluent society of the future. The key goal is more philosophical than economic; he is determined to “decouple the concepts of labour and self-worth”.

In this sense the initiative is a radical departure from both “welfare-politics-as-usual” and neo-liberal proposals for basic incomes. Che and his colleagues make up an independently-funded, wilfully apolitical group which eschews traditional concepts of left and right. There are no Marxist hangovers in the proposal (“we don’t want to take anything from anybody to give it to somebody else”), yet there is also no indication that they support a radical rationalisation of taxation and wealth creation implied by liberal economists like Milton Friedman. The UBI would not negate certain benefits guaranteed under the current welfare system – disability allowances, for example – and is not Randian model of eradicating poverty to let the wealth creators run free. The core raison d’être is an individualistic, humanist empowerment; any socio-economic reorganisation which would be bound to arise is secondary.

This reflects the messy international debate, which has come on the agenda in recent years and attracted inputs from across the spectrum. Both Yanis Varoufakis and Joseph Stiglitz have voiced approval. Slavoj Žižek, the loud Slovene philosopher of the far left, wants a reconceptualisation of UBI to recognise that “in a knowledge-based economy, collective productivity of the ‘general intellect’ is the key source of wealth” – a similar idea to Paul Mason’s vision of a “post-capitalist” socialism for a digital age. Unsurprisingly, the companies and tech evangelists who reap the largest benefits from this data-based economy are also concerned. Some are researching liberating models of “seed money for everybody” which would have the dual-advantage of reducing annoying government bureaucracy and mitigating the possible backlash against future technological gains. In true internet-emancipatory fashion, they also want to liberate people’s latent creativity by replacing the obligation to work by the incentive to innovate.

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It is difficult to argue with the idea that people should work because they want to, not because they have to. But Swiss referendums are not won and lost on philosophical niceties. Direct democracy depends upon an engaged and pragmatic population which deliberates more earthly concerns: is our society ready for this? What would happen to the Swiss economy? Most importantly, how would it work in practice? Unfortunately for the “yes” side, these matters have proven more difficult to communicate.

One opinion poll conducted in January found that just 2 per cent of the population would quit their jobs if the measure came into effect. This is far from any imagined society of freeloading slackers which people seem to fear (ironically, one-third of the same respondents said that they expected that others would leave their jobs). But in a nation where, like elsewhere, the education system is designed to train people for specific professions and the social expectation is that you are what you work, it is difficult to see beyond a vanguard of creative or entrepreneurial youth who might embrace the freedom. Of course, those working part-time positions paid little more than 2,500 Swiss francs would have little incentive to keep working, but elsewhere it may be business as usual. My local kebab vendor told me that he had been working since he was 14, so he would see no reason to stop now.

What the experiment would do to Swiss GDP is also unclear. According to the initiators of the plan, the extra cost to the exchequer to pay a UBI to all those currently under the 2,500 Swiss franc level would be a meagre SFr18 billion (the federal government puts this at SFr25 billion). This shortfall could be met by imposing a small tax on financial transactions, they suggest. Savings could also be made through the rationalisation of the welfare system, and VAT hikes have also been mooted. Under current conditions, then, the scheme would be feasible. But this is without factoring in various known unknowns: possible outsourcing of some industries due to less competitive wages, or a global reduction in GDP due to many workers reducing - if not eliminating - the hours they work. “A step too far in the right direction2, was how economist Tobias Müller put it recently in the daily Le Temps, echoing the consensus of the Swiss political class.

At the practical individual level, finally, how it would affect the pockets of the Swiss middle class is unclear. For those earning more than the minimum amount, the only difference would be that the first SFr2,500 of their salaries would be “re-packaged” as UBI. Being presumably tax-exempt, the measure therefore would mean an incremental gain but ultimately a maintaining of the status quo. An employee in an international organisation complained to me about the lack of clarity communicated both by the campaign and the government on the initiative: the actual vote hinges on three short constitutional amendments to ensure a “dignified” minimum income for the population, but details are scarce. Although she is “of course in favour” of the suggestion, she will thus vote against it. The middle and upper classes of Swiss society simply haven’t been convinced of the need for such radical change, she said. Who benefits?

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Ultimately, at all levels of politics and society, the strength of the proposal is also its weakness. Its vague, normative nature has attracted interest, but the lack of clarity around how it would work concretely and how it would affect the income of the majority of Swiss people has undercut any chance of success. Current indicators suggest it will be roundly rejected. The always out-on-a-limb Greens are the only political party to announce support. A recent opinion poll found that 72 per cent of the population were opposed to the measure.

The amount of air-time and attention it has received will nevertheless be perceived as a success by proponents. The broad nature of the proposal and the sometimes flamboyant campaign (last week they unveiled the largest campaign poster in history in Geneva (see above); the Guinness Book of Records was on hand) highlighted that their major goal was not to meticulously rewrite Swiss legislation but to kickstart the debate on their terms. The first rule of negotiation theory is to bid high. That the direct democracy system here allows for such radical proposals (whether progressive or lamentable, like some previous votes on immigration) is a boon for the international efforts to raise awareness of this future reordering of welfare.

As referendum season continues elsewhere in Europe, there may be a lesson for campaign strategists. Emotive issues are sure to attract commentary and vocal support, but the silent majority is more pragmatic than they are often given credit. It is one thing to aim for Marx’s vision of an economic system allowing us to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, and criticise after dinner”: voters want to know how the hunting rights and fish quotas would operate before signing up.