The Dateline program “Power politics”, aired on SBS TV on May 23, 2010 (and on SBS2 on May 24) was one of the most blatantly biased reports on Venezuelan politics yet to be aired on Australian TV. The anti-Bolivarian line unashamedly pushed by reporter David O'Shea mirrors (in fact was shaped by) the most right-wing of Venezuela’s opposition parties.
O’Shea’s key spokesperson for the supposedly widespread public disgruntlement with President Chavez and his government was Aixa Lopez. Lopez is presented as an ordinary citizen/mother of an asthmatic daughter/lawyer turned activist who set up the "Association of Victims of the Blackouts" out of fear for her child’s safety. What O’Shea fails to mention is that Lopez is also a long-term, committed activist for the political right, including holding the position of Women’s Secretary in the conservative Accion Democratica (Democratic Action - AD) party.
Almost everyone interviewed by O’Shea are middle-class professionals with axes to grind, and he gives them free, uncritical rein. Their vague but vehement claims that the Chavez government silences dissent are ridiculous in a country where there is greater freedom of movement, speech and assembly than even in Australia.
In this regard, O’Shea’s apparent refusal to absorb the significance of some of his own script is stunning. For example, just seconds after footage showing government critics freely demonstrating outside the ombudsman's office, anti-Chavez leader Vladimir Villegas is presented accusing the Chavez government of “shutting down critics, restricting debate, trying to impose a political view that monopolises society and preventing dissidents from expressing their views, especially internally”.
Just minutes after O’Shea reports that Venezuela’s government has recently armed 30,000 farmers and other ordinary people in national defence militias, Chavez is described as an “egotistical, militaristic totalitarian”.
It doesn’t make sense. If Chavez is such a totalitarian, why would all members of Venezuela’s armed forces be required to pledge not harm their fellow citizens? Why would Chavez have led the radical reform of Venezuela’s military to include social and community work as part of military life?
What does make sense is that, in the face of coup threats and plots, the alarming militarisation of surrounding countries by the United States, and Western TV stations like SBS actively promoting “regime change” in his country, Chavez wants an armed population.
Before Chavez was elected in 1998, Venezuela was ruled by only two parties: Democratic Action (AD) and Copei, the Christian Democrats. By contrast, the September 26th, 2010, national assembly elections will be contested by around 10 major parties, as well as dozens of smaller parties. This is hardly a state that does not allow dissent.
In fact, this Dateline program is very like the many aired daily in Venezuela by the opposition, who own the licences for all but one state-owned and one community TV broadcasting frequency. Again, hardly evidence of a state that does not allow dissent.
For a program supposedly focused on a basic service – electricity – it is remarkable that there was no mention of the many infrastructure projects the Chavez government has successfully undertaken: a huge expansion of public housing, schools, universities, hospitals and health clinics. Compared to 1998, more than 4 million more Venezuelans now have access to clean drinking water, and more than 5 million more Venezuelans now have access to sanitation.
It is even more remarkable that, having mocked the Chavez government’s public education campaign to reduce energy consumption, Dateline did not even mention the more significant attempts of the government and workers in the electricity sector to address the energy crisis. There was no mention, for example, of the two-day presidential consultation with the rank-and-file electricity workers in April, or the May 15 handover of control of various primary production plants to the workers.
Setting aside the absurdity of implying that President Chavez is somehow responsible for the current drought in Venezuela, or that low-energy light bulbs are evil tools of communist dictatorships, it in evident in every election result since Chavez first came to power that the poor of Venezuela know they would be the last to get any electricity had this happened before Chavez was elected.
And that is the nub of it: it is not Chavez the individual that fills the opposition with fear and loathing as much as the poor majority - the millions of Chavistas who are determined not to let themselves be driven back into an underclass of excluded and oppressed people. Despite undeniable obstacles and problems, in Venezuela a large proportion of people are starting to play an active role in their shaping their society, organising collectively to overcome their problems through mass movements, social missions, communal councils, community media and so on.
Rather than providing a well-researched, credible investigation of the social, economic and political situation in Venezuela, this Dateline program appeared, as one viewer’s comment on SBS’s website put it, to be little more than “an English version of the election launch for the Democratic Action (AD) Party … AD ruled Venezuela badly for 40 years. AD chose to boycott the last elections - their mistake. But now they are running for office with Dateline's help!”
We suggest that SBS endeavour to repair some of the damage to its reputation by commissioning another Dateline report that strives honestly to document the views of some of the majority of Venezuelans, who have repeatedly re-elected Chavez with increasing majorities each time, and who support his efforts to put such vital resources as electricity and the media under their/public control.
As another viewer commented on the SBS website: “For those who have missed out on dreams of a gravy boat ride or a green ticket to the US I imagine that Chavez would be hard to swallow. For the people of the world who support … equality across all economic groups, Chavez is a hero. Chavez supports the poor, obviously the rich are going to cry, they will have to share. Viva Chavez!”
May 25, 2010