Reporting on Venezuela in the mainstream press has a long history of inaccuracies, shoddy investigation, propaganda (and here), blatant ridiculousness, and a lack of understanding of the Venezuelan situation in particular and Latin American history in general. But there is a frame that has been set in the US media by the opposition in Venezuela which denies the possibility that the Chávez project is anything other than nefarious. Even "success" stories are not taken as success stories in themselves (and for criteria which would be considered "successes" from an American point of view) but are offered up as instances of Hugo Chávez's hypocrisy.
In other words, there is no picture of Chávez in the mainstream US media that ventures to portray him in anything other than an unflattering light. The few examples that do exist come with hints of elitism, as when American journalists interview poor Chavistas and subtly describe them as uneducated and intoxicated by Chávez's charisma. This basic picture falls into line with the media message of the opposition in Venezuela, which happens to account for the majority of the newspapers and television stations (despite the Bush administration's pronouncements of a lack of freedom of speech in Venezuela). Indeed, the mainstream US media representation of Chávez is just the Venezuelan opposition representation. (See, conversely, this account of the elections).
We'll keep to the side the hypocrisy of these claims from an American media that fell over itself to confirm the Bush message - when alternative accounts of the probable outcomes were widely accessible - that led us into a disastrous war, and other disastrous policies.
As for the media representation, take, for instance, the several pre-election polls coming out of Venezuela (see here for a comparative analysis: Presentation of new Venezuelan Poll - in English - November 2006). While some external polls publish their methodologies and the official poll in Venezuela is also transparent, those polls showing Manuel Rosales' numbers close to Chávez's or with Rosales in the lead have mysterious backgrounds. They do not publish their methodologies; they are not transparent. Yet, the media narrative about the election often suggests that the gap is closing between these two main candidates.
It's curious to me... if the non-transparent polls are an attempt to prepare the grounds for yet another opposition claim that the elections are illegitimate, and to stimulate further dissent... then why are the poll methodologies so poorly disguised? Everyone knows that polls depend on methodology. Since polls can show nearly anything, you simply have to publish the methodology along with any poll results for a poll to be considered to have any legitimacy.
I wonder who the polls that show a neck-and-neck race are intended to influence. It wouldn't appear to be the international audience, since most internationals paying attention to polls in Venezuela would have some poll literacy. It would seem to be those who are illiterate when it comes to the nature of polls. Wouldn't this be an odd target audience in Venezuela? Those who are, generally, poorer and less educated? Or is this a way of trying to influence opinion within the population of those who traditionally vote for Chávez? This would seem to be consistent with Rosales' proposal for the "Mi Negra" cards for the poor. If this hypothesis is correct, then it would show at least two things: 1) the opposition knows it needs to target the main part of the citizenry and has thus changed its tactics; and 2) they think there's a real possibility that they can change enough public opinion within Chávez's constituency to either a) have the vote turn in their favor and actually win this election; or b) create serious dissent within the country among the poor. But I doubt it would be a matter of influencing international opinion regarding the legitimacy of the elections unless the opposition could manage serious dissent among the poor.
This is wildly speculative on my part, but this strategy has the characteristics of a Karl Rove strategy. He is famous for taking the strength of an opponent and turning it into a weakness. So, for example, if Rove had his fingerprints on tactics in Venezuela, it would look something like this - rather than a direct competition with Chávez, or a brute attempt at a coup, he would try to turn opinion among the poor against Chávez. That is, he would try to foment doubts and confusion among Chávez's base constituency.
Rosales says he will abide by the results of the election as long as the election is fair and transparent. Good for him. But the polls may very well be intended to demonstrate a priori that the election was not fair, to set up the potential for another coup or at least further dissent. There is, at this point, no reason to suspect that the election is rigged. Watch for the post-election statements of independent international observers, and ignore the claims of either the chavistas or the opposition. There is good reason to think that disunity is the goal of the opposition.
Back to the main point, however.... Regarding Chávez, there may be very good reasons to remain skeptical about his programs. But there is no good reason, on the other hand, to not be skeptical about opposition claims about Chávez and about their own proposals. The US media, however, has made a choice in advance. Thus, it once again serves no one except those who would believe the Bush administration's talking points about Chávez and about the general directions in Latin America. It obscures understanding of the politics of Latin America, and prepares the way for more disastrous policy, should it come to that. Given the heavy investments by the US in Venezuela's most shrill opposition group, Súmate, and the use of the controversial Penn, Schoen, and Berland as a polling source and basis for claims about electoral fraud, the scene is set for further attempts to delegitimize the electoral outcome.
Oh, and PS: Here's the US's position at this point:
The United States warned people to stockpile food, water and medicine in Venezuela in case a vote on Sunday sparks public disorder as anti-U.S. President Hugo Chavez seeks reelection.UPDATE:
In a warning to Americans living in Venezuela, which provides about 12 percent of U.S. oil imports, the U.S. Embassy said on Tuesday it had no information Venezuela would slip into lawlessness.
Also check out this speculation - with some support - on the "planned" post-election coup (the Nov. 21st entry).