It was interesting to see how the French media reacted to the announcement of the death of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. I usually frequent what in the US would be called the “liberal” media. For example, I listen to France-Culture, a public radio station. (Yes, France has public radio, and it’s actually publicly funded and commercial-free.) France-Culture is the only radio station I have ever run across that features a regular program on architecture. It also carries the Sunday morning Mass from Notre-Dame cathedral. But that doesn’t keep it from energetically criticizing the government when it deserves it.
But after the predictable mention of Chávez’s improving his people’s lot thanks to his country’s mineral wealth, France-Culture’s evening news story on Chávez called him a “nationalist.” That term is a heavily loaded one in France. Nationalism is seen as a major cause of the Great War. Hitler and Mussolini were nationalists.
And the use of the term wasn’t even accurate. Chávez was an internationalist, one of whose achievements has been to unite several Latin American countries who are determined to follow a different path from the one proposed for them by the US… a path that has been disastrous for the peoples of Latin America – where, after all, the US is basically the successor of the Spanish and Portuguese colonizers who bled the continent for centuries. Remember the Maine?
Listening further, I noticed a general tendency to focus on Chávez’s personality – admittedly colorful – rather than on his achievements. There seemed to be a fixation on the fact that most of what he achieved – cutting the poverty rate in half, land reform, making education and health care accessible to all, etc. – is owed to his government’s control of Venezuela’s rich oil resources, and the suggestion that all that good had been done for purely electoral motives. As if it weren’t natural for a country’s resources to be used to better the lives of its people…
But it was later, watching the evening news on ARTE TV – another hotbed of the liberal media – that I began to wonder whether the same narrative was informing the coverage in all the media. The reports harped on Chávez’s ties to “dictators” like Saddam Hussein and Muammar Ghaddafi, as if to suggest that this president who went out of his way to legitimize his power through elections was a dictator himself, or as if to conveniently forget that France and the US both supported Saddam and Ghaddafi when it was perceived as being in their interest. The tone of the reports was often one of raillery. They seemed determined to portray Chávez as some kind of comic-opera potentate – again seeming to forget France’s own embarrassment over having a “bling-bling” president whose sartorial model seemed to be John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. Chávez was sneeringly referred to as the “Little father of the peoples,” again in a clear attempt to tar him with the brush of totalitarianism. He was portrayed as having created and maintained a “personality cult.”
As for Chávez’s economic policies, again the prevailing theme was that he had made himself popular among the masses by buying their favor with oil revenues. At one point we were told that Chávez “used Venezuela’s oil wealth to enrich the poor.” Enrich the poor? By creating a system of markets that put food more within their reach? Were we supposed to imagine indolent peasants sporting Rolex watches and toying with iPhones while drinking champagne on café terraces (as the French are fond of doing)? In the background seemed to be the unchallenged assumption that the purpose of oil – or any of the natural resources in which Latin America, like Africa, abounds – is to enrich someone.
Later, on ARTE’s 28 Minutes commentary/discussion program, a lone representative of orthodoxy found himself outgunned by the other commentators on the panel – all with perfectly legitimate mainstream credentials. The same commonplaces were brought up, only to be deflated by sober, informed comments:
The personality cult: There is a nuance to be made between a personality cult and a leader who is genuinely adored by his people, even if he has gone out of his way to cultivate that love.
The “dictator”-by-association meme: All realistic leaders cultivate alliances that further the interests of their people. (This would have been a good time to flash the picture of Sarkozy and his “brother” Ghaddafi.)
Chávez’s playing fast and loose with the constitutional process: Someone quickly mentioned Jacques Chirac’s dissolution of the French legislature in 1997, and the discussion abruptly ended.
Chávez is a friend of the evil ayatollahs’ regime in Iran: Venezuela and Iran are among the founders of OPEC; would it be realistic to expect him to put an end to such a long-term alliance?
Then another major argument was brought out: Chávez’s “de-industrialization” of Venezuela. Could this be a reference to the IMF’s classifying the country as “slow to recover?” Should Venezuela follow the example of most of the other major Latin American countries and de-populate its countryside, shrink its public sector, privatize all its resources and public services, increase its dependency on foreign debt and on the major powers, allow its wealth to be siphoned off for the benefit of the global elite, and allow its population to serve as a pool of cheap labor for international capital? Perhaps the problem, as the mainstream media see it, is that Hugo Chávez did the opposite. He encouraged his people, and the people of other Latin American nations, to walk a different path, to finally shake off the domination of the powerful, to make the word “development” mean something other than enrichment for the global few and continuing poverty and oppression for their people. He spurred the creation of BancoSur as an alternative to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. He dared to challenge the dollar as the foundation stone of the world’s economy. Could it be for all those reasons that the mainstream media seem to be hoping that Hugo Chávez is dead? Viva Chávez!