I’ve spent the last few weeks speaking to lots of random Italians about Venezuela – and last night, after asking any number of them what they know about Chavez and Venezuela, I had an epiphany. After talking to the Nth vaguely philochavista Italian bar-stool intellectual, I realized why they all think this way: there’s a rarely acknowledged asymmetry in the information about Venezuela available to a news reader here, and in many ways it’s exactly the opposite of what you might expect.
Chavista apologists see themselves as embattled purveyors of a truth the mainstream press wants to silence. But in fact, it’s the opposition that rarely finds the space to tell its story in full to the newspaper readers of the first world. Unlike the chavistas, the opposition doesn’t have an ideologically friendly and journalistically docile set of media outlets willing to tell their story, unadulterated, in full. Instead, they rely on a mainstream press that, though often villified as biased, has no choice but to make an effort at journalistic balance far beyond the norm in the lefty press.
If you read the mainstream papers intently, you realize that they’re structurally different from the leftwing press. Whatever their personal feelings – and as first world liberals it’s not hard to guess what they are – mainstream journalists are constrained by professional ethics to try to balance their reports and express, even if in extreme shorthand, the perceptions of both sides of the debate. Some do this better than others, but all are bound by the rules of the profession to at least make an attempt in that direction. So right next to the line about how “the opposition accuses Chavez of taking Venezuela on the path to Cuban-style communism” you will always read, “the government blames the opposition for the 2002 coup and the crippling general strike…” It may be extreme shorthand, but both sides are there.
Only the paranoia and persecution complex on the left makes it appear to them as though they’re getting a raw deal in the mainstream press. But if you read the mainstream press closely, it’s impossible to call it pro-opposition – in fact, the chavista’s vision of an essentially oligarchical, privileged opposition angered essentially by Chavez’s efforts at wealth redistribution is largely parroted by the mainstream press. The reality of an opposition that includes broad chunks of the Venezuelan left, millions of poor people and even the damn Trotskyite party is almost never acknowledged.
Still – as my good friend Hannah explains – to ideological thinkers, any story line that challenges, or casts doubt on, or complicates or even contextualizes a given ideological interpretation of events is, ipso facto, beyond the pale to an ideological thinker. Even mild criticism must be interpreted in terms intelligible within the frame of reference set out by the logic of their central idea. Put in other words, the structure of chavismo rules out the possibility of critical support or nuanced sympathy. Autocrats just won’t settle for it. Patria o muerte.
Luckily for chavismo, the leftwing press, makes no analogous attempt to tell the entire story, to place it in context, to tell the story with all its ifs, ands and buts. There is no pretense in the leftwing press to try to put forward the other side’s best argument, to try to understand the points of view of opponents as anything other than expressions of Bushophilia or economic privilege. Instead, Le monde diplomatique, Il Manifesto, The Nation, and the rest of them simply regurgitate the old, worn-out party line peddled out of Miraflores, a line that, as critically-minded Venezuelans know only too well, is riddled with inconsistencies, manipulations, and convenient lacunas of the memory.
A simple, morally satisfying falsification beats a messy, uncomfortable truth any day of the week. There is, of course, nothing new about that. Given the particularly ghastly record of the Bush administration on foreign policy, it becomes particularly easy for chavistas to manipulate the opinion of the well-meaning but underinformed. The mirror-image polarization of Venezuelan and first-world societies – ours around Chavez, theirs around Bush – makes it especially easy to sucker the uninitiated. As Greg Wilpert, Bernardo Alvarez, Ignacio Ramonet et. al. know only too well, half of Americans and 90% of Europeans don’t need to know anything about a given story beyond what the Bush administration’s position is. They’ll adopt the opposite position uncritically, automatically, without the slightest need for consideration. It’s a simple, straightforward dynamic, one that Hugo Chavez has gotten damn good at exploiting.
As a result, someone like Marjorie – an interested but ignorant gringa – barely has a chance. On an emotional level, her sympathy for Chavez will be automatic as soon as she hears one of his anti-Bush tirades. Reading the press gives her access only to a strangely warped slice of Venezuelan reality. She knows, in extreme schematized form, the opposition’s basic beef with Chavez, and she knows, in quite some detail, the “heroic version” of the chavista revolution. But because there is no real right-wing analogue to the leftwing press in the first world (beyond Mary Anastasia O’Grady’s columns in the Wall Street Journal), she really has no access to the heroic version of the opposition, to the detailed story about how and why the opposition has come to be so frontally opposed to Chavez and why, if a government in her country acted the way Chavez has acted in ours, she wouldn’t stand for it for 10 seconds! Only a tiny minority who, like Marjorie, happen upon web sites like this one, has even a shadow of a chance to come to understand the problem more broadly and less ideologically.
So it’s not surprising that Chavez has, in important ways, won the international opinion battle. First world news consumers have to do wayyy too much work to get a broader picture, including an obligatory turn through Google. The broad majority will simply read a couple of mainstream articles, mistake them for opposition apologism, then read a couple of leftwing press pieces, assume they’re the real deal, and accept the pretty, reassuring, soothing, heroic vision of the embattled people’s president doing battle against a rogue’s gallery of privilege. It’s really too much to expect anything more.
All of which brings us back to Orwell, and how truth and history mutate in the retelling. In time, if things keep going like this, the heroic version of chavismo will become the official story in broad parts of the first world. The April 11th cadena and the orden to activate Plan Avila have, in some ways, already been written out of the first world’s understanding of that seminal moment in our contemporary history. In twenty years, I’m sure illuminated lefty history books on Latin America will report the glorious day when 8 million penniless people beat the CIA and the oligarchs on the streets of Venezuela.