Alan MacLeod—Chavista ‘thugs’ vs. opposition ‘civil society’: western media on Venezuela


By First Published January 25, 2019 Research Article
Since the election of Hugo Chavez in 1998, Venezuela has undergone a period of intense racial and class conflict, as a multiethnic subaltern coalition has begun to assert itself politically against a previously hegemonic and inordinately dominant white elite. Scholars have highlighted the local media’s racial and class snobbery when covering social movements and civil society, attempting to split the country into two groups: ‘underclass mobs’ and ‘respectable’ civil society. This article, which analyses media coverage at crucial points of conflict – 1998/9, 2002, 2013 and 2014 – finds that western media have overwhelmingly matched the local media, portraying only the largely dark-skinned working-class chavista groups as vicious ‘mobs’, ‘hordes’ and ‘thugs’, while representing the white, upper-class opposition as ‘civil society’.
Today, Venezuelans struggle as their economy implodes and their Latin American neighbours, lurching to the Right, threaten sanctions against the ‘socialism’ of current president Maduro. But the present set of contradictions follows years of demonisation of former president Hugo Chavez and his supporters by the western media. Since Chavez’s election in 1998, the country has undergone a period of intense class and racial conflict since the election of Hugo Chavez as president in 1998. Chavez, the first non-white leader in the majority non-white country’s history, was re-elected three times and led a popular movement against the entrenched white elite. Since 1998 Venezuela has become a site of permanent struggle between the middle and upper classes and the subaltern masses that Chavez drew his support from. The country has thus drawn a great deal of media interest from around the world, from both the Left and the Right.

This article, using content and discourse analysis, explores how seven influential western newspapers represented the subaltern civil society groups that supported the chavista project and the mostly elite groups that oppose it. It finds an almost unfailing double standard of representing civil society groups that support the chavistas as dangerous gangs of thugs, and any group opposing them as respectable civil society groups, no matter how questionable their actions.

‘Civil society’ is generally understood as the aggregate of non-governmental organisations and institutions aiming to further the interests and will of citizens within a nation. It consists of NGOs, unions, social movements, professional associations and many more groups that, collectively, try to improve society. Yet many academics who have studied the local Venezuelan media have argued that that media label only middle-class groups as forming civil society, while demonising working-class groups as hordes, gangs, or riffraff.1 Previous work has detailed the close connections between the Venezuelan elite, Venezuelan media and western journalists, with western media often hiring local elite journalists as correspondents and taking their cue and political line from local publications.2 What has never been studied before is how the international media represent Venezuelan civil society.

In order to explore the question of how the international media portray who does and does not constitute Venezuelan civil society, a sample from seven leading western publications was taken from the Nexus and NewsBank databases of all relevant articles over 400 words containing the word ‘Venezuela’ in the text. Those newspapers were The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Miami Herald, The Guardian, The Independent, The Times (London) and The Daily Telegraph (see Table 1). The dates selected were from peak periods of interest across the chavista period (1998–). They were the 1998/9 election and inauguration of Chavez, the 2002 coup attempt, the 2013 death of Chavez, the 2013 election of Nicolas Maduro and the 2014 protests against the government. As it produces far more articles on Venezuela than the other newspapers, the date ranges for The Miami Herald were slightly curtailed, in order to prevent it dominating the sample.

Table 1. Press coverage 1998–2014.

This produced a total of 501 articles, 232 from left-of-centre publications, 229 from right-of-centre and 40 from centrist newspapers, 302 of them American and 199, British. These articles were then analysed using content and discourse analysis. But to set this media coverage in context, some background to Venezuela’s recent history is needed.

Due to the implementation of neoliberalism during the 1980s and 1990s, inequality between the classes in Venezuela greatly increased, and poverty rose rapidly. This led to profound social dislocation, particularly after the 1989 Caracazo, when the government ordered a military crackdown on working-class protesters from the barrios, resulting in the massacre of thousands. The event, and the economic crisis of the 1990s, led to the breakdown of the traditional social order and to the election of a former military officer and political outsider, Hugo Chavez, as president in 1998.

Chavez, who came from a poor family, campaigned on the promise of a new Constitution. It was implemented the next year and contained new rights for indigenous groups, the poor and women, among others. He was re-elected in 2000. But in 2002, a coup by the combined sectors of the Venezuelan elite, with help from the US government, deposed him. However, Chavez was saved from the same fate as many Latin American leaders by an uprising among the poor, dark-skinned majority of Venezuelans, who demanded his return.

As a result of the coup, the chavista government moved to the Left and instituted a series of wide-scale social programmes designed to redistribute wealth and power downwards. Under Chavez, Venezuela’s human development rose sharply, poverty fell by half and the working class’s share of national income rose by 22 per cent.3 Chavez was re-elected again in 2006 (and subsequently in 2012) in a political landslide led by an energised grassroots campaign from below that sought to challenge the social, cultural, political and racial hegemony of the light-skinned elite that had ruled the country since independence. Rather than simple economic benefits, it was the newfound sense of self-worth and the sense of inclusion among the darker-skinned working-class majority that was crucial to understanding the sustained popularity of Chavez. He ruled until his death in 2013. His vice-president, Nicolas Maduro, was elected on the promise of continuing his ‘Bolivarian Revolution.’

However, Venezuela had entered a profound economic crisis, with the price of oil falling dramatically, disastrous government policies and US sanctions. The opposition, largely the same elite that had ruled before Chavez, used this to attempt to oust the increasingly unpopular Maduro, such as in the 2014 campaign of guarimbas (street protests and barricades) detailed below. Today, Venezuela is racked by inflation and shortages of certain food products. Yet those who have been hit the worst, the working classes, have protested the least and continue to disproportionately support the government, while the least affected upper classes have mobilised around the issue, generating considerable international attention. This situation is complicated by the fact that both food production and distribution continue to be largely privately controlled and are in the hands of members of the elite, like Lorenzo Mendoza of Empresas Polar, the country’s largest company, which has near monopoly control over many key foodstuffs that are in short supply. As Ana Felicien and her co-authors state, ‘without Polar, there is no food’, noting that the company has withheld food during key political periods before.4 Mendoza considered running as the opposition’s presidential candidate against Maduro in 2018. Nevertheless, despite the country’s enormous economic problems, the opposition has at the time of writing not yet achieved its goal of retaking political power.

Many commentators have strongly criticised the chavista project. Kurt Weyland claims that it ‘slowly but surely smothered democracy’ by removing checks and balances and crushing civil society.5 Similar criticism has been levelled by human rights organisations. Human Rights Watch (HRW) notes the government’s ‘adversarial approach to civil society’, seeking to harass those groups and exclude and marginalise dissent in the country.6 A 2018 Organization of American States (OAS) report condemned the government, accusing it of ‘crimes against humanity’ as it represses civil society groups.7

Others have rebutted these criticisms. Two Nobel laureates and over a hundred Latin American studies specialists claimed HRW’s report ‘does not even meet the most minimal standards of scholarship’ and drew attention to the revolving door between human rights organisations and the US government, directly implicated in regime change.8 Critics of the OAS position note that the organisation is dominated by the US and was expressly created as an anti-socialist, pro-capitalist organisation. They draw attention to its leader, Uruguayan diplomat Luis Almagro’s strong anti-socialist bias and his close relationship with the controversial Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez. Lopez, convicted of terrorism in 2014, is termed a ‘dear friend’ and a ‘political prisoner’. Indeed, one of the OAS report’s writers is Lopez’s lawyer. Furthermore, in justifying Congress’ 2018 funding of the OAS, USAID argued that the organisation is crucial for ‘promoting US interests in the Western hemisphere by countering the influence of anti-US countries such as Venezuela.’9

One reason for the differences in opinion, according to Ernesto Abalo, is diverging positions on what constitutes democracy, noting that by the standard of participatory or radical democracy, with its emphasis on people power and inclusion, Venezuela has done well. However, if judged by the standards of liberal democracy, with its emphasis on procedure and institutions, there are clear shortcomings.10

Furthermore, the relationship between civil society and the state is crucial but often fractious across Latin America. Civil society groups were important in bringing about the end of the Pinochet regime in Chile. In Ecuador and Bolivia indigenous organisations that were key to Presidents Correa and Morales’ success now find themselves in conflict with their governments over questions of extraction and the environment. On the Right, too, civil society groups played a key role in the impeachment of Brazil’s President Rousseff in 2016 and the election of Jair Bolsonaro in 2018.

The media in Venezuela is highly concentrated in very few hands and linked with the old elite who controlled the country until 1998. During the Punto Fijo period (1958–1998), only the government had the power to award new licences for media. In order to embark on a new media enterprise, one had to have close connections to high-ranking government officials. Scholars have highlighted numerous cases where government ministers or advisers have been awarded licences.11 This has led to a symbiotic relationship between the media and political elites, where the media, dependent on the government for licensing, in turn, legitimises and validates the government through positive coverage. After the collapse of the traditional political parties after 1998, the media became the primary political vehicle of the elite. Even after the controversial chavista media reforms, private media still dominate, with the state television’s audience share low. A large majority of radio stations and newspapers are critical of the government.

Studies of the private Venezuelan media have been highly critical. Lupien notes its extremely high level of concentration and alignment with local opposition political parties. What results is a narrow set of perspectives, according to which movements challenging the hegemony of the dominant social race and class are attacked as dangerous and feckless. Unable to discredit the results of the elections, claims Lupien, the media has sought to undermine the standing of the chavista government by presenting its supporters as unthinking followers or as dangerous, irrational mobs.12 And Duno-Gottberg argues that the local media has attempted to construct two distinct groupings of political actors; rational, respectable ‘civil society’ groups who oppose the government and the dangerous ‘mob’ of dark-skinned, lower-class degenerates who support it.13

For Hernandez, while the chavista project may be read as an attempt to lift and energise the lower-classes into a people through national-popular interpellation, the discourse of the white elite has been to present itself as ‘civil society’ and the multitude as a barbaric ‘permanent threat to society’. Hence, he argues, the term ‘civil society’ has become an empty signifier, used only to describe groups belonging to the privileged white elite that are in opposition to the government and their vulgar supporters; an imaginary source of terror for the elite. Thus, the local media ‘obsessively represent’ chavista civil society organisations as ‘intrinsically violent paramilitary-like groups, designed to intimidate and eliminate the opposition’. Thus he accuses the elite of waging a campaign of ‘media terrorism’, in which influential newspapers like El Nacional and El Universal demonstrate a ‘coherent and systematic line of argument intended to cause fear, horror and hatred towards chavismo’.14

Lupien claims that Chavez supporters are never bestowed with agency or viewed as being guided by rational self-interest by the local media, which, instead, use words like ‘lowlifes’, ‘thugs’ or ‘Taliban’ and depict them as linked to the president by emotional manipulation, or literally by magical or religious control.15 For instance, El Nacional (14 October 2001) described chavista civil society as an ‘underclass … brought in from the interior of the country’ that did not understand what they were voting for but were ‘willing to sell themselves for a lump of bread and a bottle of rum’. This trope of poor, unintelligent Venezuelans being easily bribed continues to the present day; in the May 2018 elections, Reuters claimed the poor were voting for Maduro because they thought they were ‘winning a prize’ or because they would receive a box of food.16

During the 2002 coup, where the elite’s push to force Chavez out of office by violence was beaten back by mass protests from the country’s popular classes, the local media insisted the ‘mob’ did not know what it was doing, and was being manipulated by a deceitful leader.17El Universal (19 July 2002) characterised those opposing the government as ‘civil society’ and the counter-coup as (21 April 2002) ‘looting as a product of resentment’.

Virtually the entire local media was heavily involved in fomenting, orchestrating and promoting the coup, which was headquartered at the mansion home of Gustavo Cisneros, the owner of the largest TV channel. On 12 April, his channel Venevisión ran a tickertape on its screen stating ‘Venezuela recovered its liberty’ while coup leaders were invited on air and thanked the media for their cooperation. One stated: ‘We had a deadly weapon: the media. And now that I have the opportunity, let me congratulate you’.18 Other networks did the same; one RCTV director was told to put ‘zero chavismo on screen’.19 On the same day, one of Venezuela’s most influential TV hosts, Napoleon Bravo, invited the coup leaders on air, who thanked him for assisting them in their rebellion.

The country’s national newspapers were similarly involved. El Nacional’s (11 April 2002) front page on the day before the coup read, ‘take to the streets, not one step backwards’ and ‘the final battle will be at the Miraflores [presidential palace]!’ El Universal (13 April 2002) was triumphant in the aftermath of what seemed a successful endeavour, its headline declaring ‘A Step Forward!’. Most private TV networks suspended regular broadcasts to beseech viewers to come onto the streets to overthrow the government; they played doctored footage of Chavez supporters under attack that made it seem as if they were the aggressors, and allowed coup leaders airtime to denounce Chavez. But they refused to report on the counter-coup while it was ongoing, instead airing documentaries and Julia Roberts movies. As the counter-coup succeeded, all national newspapers except Últimas Noticias suspended printing.

Indeed, El Universal (13 January 2002) described the Bolivarian Circles, neighbourhood associations that played a crucial role in beating back the coup, as dangerous ‘riffraff’, who, lacking the stylish elegance of the Italian Blackshirts or the discipline of German Nazi groups to be truly considered fascist, were deemed closest to Haitian President Duvalier’s death squads, the Tontons Macoutes – both groups brutish thugs, who practised magic.20 This underlying racism will be discussed below.

After the arrival of Columbus in 1498, Venezuela was set up as a plantation economy, in which small groups of European landgrabbers enslaved large groups of indigenous Americans in order to produce primary products. They, decimated by the invasion and Conquest, were succeeded by captured Africans brought into the territory, whose lives were similarly held of little account. After the long independence struggle and the final abolition of slavery in the mid-nineteenth century, the structure of the economy changed very little. A white creole landowning elite replaced direct Spanish rule, while indigenous and Afro-Venezuelans were effectively barred from well-paying jobs in the oil industry, meaning that today the poor are mostly black and the black are mostly poor.

Attempts were made to whiten the make-up of the population in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with government programmes giving European immigrants much of the most productive land. Cannon has cogently argued that white in Venezuela is shorthand for beautiful, pure and sophisticated, with black the symbol of ugly, poor and unintelligent. Black people are ‘practically invisible’ on Venezuelan television, presented only as feckless lowlifes and ‘black is highly undervalued, if not despised’ in the country. Before Chavez’s advent, there were almost no non-white TV show hosts in this majority non-white country. The intersection of race and class can be seen in advertising, where products aimed at the elite use white models while those aimed at a working-class audience often feature darker models. Despite the fact that 64 per cent of Venezuelans are non-white, only 4 per cent identify as black.21

Thus, there is a strong correlation between race, class and political affiliation in Venezuela, where 67 per cent of socioeconomic sectors A and B voted for Chavez’s opponent in 2000 while only 24 per cent of socioeconomic category E did so, as opposed to 50.5 per cent voting for Chavez. Half of those voting for him in 1998 had never voted before. Chavez drew his support from the poor, who felt he was one of them since he grew up in poverty in a mud hut in Barinas state. In contrast, Cannon argues that his rejection by the middle classes was precisely a rejection of the poor and dark-skinned, and was based on a deeply rooted historical notion of black as inferior to white.22 This unstated position of the elite today, Salas contends, is being challenged openly by a multi-ethnic coalition of subaltern peoples, and is a painful psychological shock to the hegemonic white supremacist culture.23

‘Black’ and ‘chavista’ are understood to be virtually synonymous in Venezuela. A supplement of El Nacional printed a story of three opposition journalists blacked up to look like golliwogs so as to pass unnoticed at a chavista rally by ‘the mob violently opposed to them’. One problem the supplement pointed out was that permanent use of this disguise would mean they would begin to smell like monkeys. Taken for granted was that chavistas were black and civil society, white.24 During the 2017 protests against the government, a black man, Orlando Jose Figueroa, was accosted by a group of white protesters who assumed, because of his skin colour, he was both a chavista and a criminal. He was beaten, stabbed six times and burned to death. Other Afro-Venezuelans were lynched by white groups during these protests. Thus, Salas claims, the political economy of racism among the Venezuelan elite is nothing more than the historical continuation of the process of conquest and slavery that began 500 years ago.25

And yet racism is a taboo subject in Venezuela. One of the core national ideologies is that the country is a ‘coffee with milk’ society, where everyone is a mix of coffee (African) and milk (European), effectively meaning they are all the same ‘race’. As a consequence, openly racial language and terminology in the media coexists alongside the denial that racism is a problem inside the country.

It is not a situation that is challenged by local analyses of the Venezuelan media or of the ways that civil society is represented, most of which focus solely on the 2002 coup attempt and do not challenge the inherent biases of coverage more generally. This article, however, takes into account the entire chavista period (1998–) and focuses on British and American media. It shows how the western media closely mirror the racist and classist coverage of Venezuelan media. One reason for this is that western journalists going to Venezuela typically live and work in the exclusive east side of an intensely racially and socially segregated Caracas. Most such journalists live in exclusive gated communities with armed guards and rarely travel outside the rich, cosmopolitan east side. Therefore, they rarely come into contact with the poor, dark-skinned majority of the country. Many do not speak Spanish and so cannot in any case communicate with the bottom 95 per cent of the population who do not speak English. This further limits them to communicating almost exclusively with elite sources. They also work closely alongside established local journalists, who are overwhelmingly from privileged backgrounds and from highly partisan, opposition media organisations. Journalists have admitted to me simply copying and pasting stories from partisan local news sources like El Universal and El Nacional. Furthermore, due to pressures of globalisation and of cuts, many western news organisations employ or have outsourced their Venezuelan coverage to local journalists from oppositional backgrounds. This creates an antagonistic newsroom atmosphere where even western journalists in Caracas call themselves ‘the resistance’ to the chavistas, while those more sympathetic to the chavistas admit to self-censorship, adding to the groupthink. As one journalist said, ‘I just never even pitched stories that I knew would never get in … And I knew that and I wasn’t stupid enough to even pitch. I knew it wouldn’t even be considered. After that I just stopped.’26 No wonder, then, that local media attitudes seep into western reporting as well.

The frequency with which the seven newspapers in my sample presented chavista and opposition groups disparagingly as intrinsically violent mobs or gangs was counted. Overall, there were 158 references in sixty-five articles to government-sympathetic groups as violent hordes, gangs or criminals but the newspapers did not use words like ‘hordes’, ‘mobs’ or ‘gangs’ to describe opposition groups at all.

Chavez was the country’s first non-white president, having run against a string of opposition candidates, including a former Miss Universe. The local media christened the election ‘Beauty vs. the Beast’.27 The western media picked up on this tone, framing his supporters as ignorant and beastly. The Washington Post (7 December 1998) quoted one observer noting, ‘Chavez goes down to people very low in culture. He offers a series of things that are dreams’. And The Miami Herald (7 December 1998) claimed that the chavistas would embrace an authoritarian dictatorship, citing one source who said, ‘Chavez’s history of violence worries me. His followers worry me. His followers generally are not very educated’.

The dehumanisation of working-class, dark-skinned Venezuelans was ramped up in 2002 during the coup attempt. On 11 April, large demonstrations overwhelmed Caracas. Opposition civil society groups claimed that Chavez’s actions as president, including his verbal attacks on the church and business groups, were eroding democracy. It was the renationalisation of PDVSA (Petróleos de Venezuela, S. A.), which they saw to be neutral and independent, that was, for many in this group, the final straw.

As anti-government protests met pro-government marches, shots were fired; nineteen people were killed and sixty-nine wounded. Opposition leaders blamed Chavez for the violence, and, with the help of military units, arrested him and installed in his place Pedro Carmona, the chief of the Chamber of Commerce. Representatives from all sectors of the elite – the Catholic Church, military, business, media and trade unions – signed the ‘Carmona Decree’, which abolished the new Constitution, suspended the Supreme Court, liquidated Congress and gave Carmona the power to rule alone by decree. The racial and class composition of the new government was evident even to the coup-makers themselves, with Carmona’s advisers beseeching him to find at least one non-white person to put in front of the cameras broadcasting the events. But Carmona did not find one.28 According to the final report of the Venezuelan Human Rights Defender, seven of the dead were chavistas, seven were opposition supporters and five were unaffiliated. Of those wounded, thirty-eight were chavistas, seventeen, opposition and fourteen, unaffiliated. There is no consensus on who was responsible for the murders; those sympathetic to the opposition stress a lack of certainty over who was guilty, while those on the other side take it as a virtual fact that the opposition was. However, even the strongest critics of the chavistas accept that what took place was indeed a coup.29

The coup leaders appeared on TV and announced lists of hundreds of political figures to be ‘detained’, while a purge of over 500 journalists deemed enemies of the new regime took place.30 In less than a day, over 100 were imprisoned, state TV was forced off the air and many local, independent media were invaded and destroyed, with journalists being tortured and others publicly flogged.31

However, the new government lasted only two days, as large numbers of dark-skinned working-class Venezuelans came down from the hills around Caracas to protest. These mass peaceful demonstrations encouraged loyal army units to retake the presidential palace and rescue Chavez.

Released documents show that the coup and the violence had been planned from the start and that the US government was intimately aware that the opposition was planning to provoke and exploit violence in early April in order to push through a ‘coup’.32 The US initially supported these actions, the White House calling them ‘peaceful demonstrations’ that Chavez had ordered suppressed and it pressured the OAS to recognise Carmona.33 However, the OAS immediately denounced what it saw as a violent coup d’état and expressed solidarity with the Venezuelan people.34 By 15 April, the US government had backtracked and itself condemned the coup.

This is the context in which the western media portrayed the groups responsible for the coup as ‘civil society’ while the lower-class groups defending the Constitution were dangerous mobs and threats to democracy. For example, The Daily Telegraph (13 April 2002) reported that:

The president of Venezuela was forced to resign by his military high command yesterday after his supporters opened fire on an opposition rally calling for his departure, killing 13 people … [Chavez’s] moves alienated all of the important sectors in Venezuelan society: business, landowners, the unions and the Catholic Church … Mr Chavez has a fanatical following among some sectors of the poor. (Emphasis added.)

Thus, the newspaper reported false information that Chavez had resigned and that his supporters had killed opposition supporters. Yet Chavez was demonstrably kidnapped, and the balance of evidence, particularly that twice as many chavistas were wounded as opposition supporters, and that CNN correspondent Otto Neustadt filmed the coup leaders’ denunciations of the shootings before any took place, indicates their responsibility. It also delegitimised the working class, claiming all ‘important’ sectors of society opposed Chavez and only ‘fanatical’ murderers supported him. Those fanatical murderers made up the majority of the country.

The New York Times (13 April 2002) strongly supported the events, framing them as a democratic uprising rather than a coup, noting that Chavez had:

Alienated virtually every constituency from middle-class professionals, academics and business leaders to union members and the Roman Catholic Church … One encouraging development has been the strong participation of middle-class citizens in organizing opposition groups and street protests. Continued civic participation could help revitalize Venezuela.

It described the coup as ‘a week of peaceful marches’ by protesters, while the counter-protest was characterised as ‘furious mobs of Chavez supporters marching violently through the capital looting stores in poor areas.’ Not surprisingly, ‘The death toll mounted’ (16 April 2002).

This was very similar to El Universal’s coverage documented previously. Less than two years before, Chavez had won both the largest share of the vote and the largest total number of votes in Venezuelan history, winning twenty-two out of twenty-three states; he went on to best those numbers in 2006 with his re-election landslide. Chavez had evidently not alienated most of the population, showing clearly who and who does not constitute society, according to the media. Those who do are the white elite professional groups and those who do not are the violent unpeople who exist, but evidently do not form part of society. Instead, The New York Times disparaged the hundreds of thousands of working-class peaceful protesters who rose up as ‘armed thugs’ (15 April 2002) and ‘Dobermans’ (12 April 2002).

The other newspapers portrayed the groups similarly. For example, according to The Washington Post (21 April 2002) the opposition was ‘inspired’ and ‘energetic’, ‘democratic’, ‘civil society’, and the working-class groups opposing the coup were ‘hard-core’, ‘bullies’ – even while the inspired democrats were gunning down the hard-core bullies. Across the sample there were thirty-five references to opposition groups as representing a respectable ‘civil society’, but chavista groups were not once described in the same manner. This across-the-spectrum uniformity adds weight to Hernandez’s theory that the term ‘civil society’ is an empty signifier, a technical term used only to describe elite groups.

The Miami Herald (16 April 2002) mirrored the coverage of El Universal (13 January 2002) that compared the Bolivarian Circles to Nazis and Tontons Macoutes, noting they ‘resembled nothing so much as the neighbourhood-watch committees of so many dictatorships, whether Fascist or Communist.’

The presentation of Chavez supporters as violent, uneducated hordes continued throughout his presidency and after his death in 2013. While covering Chavez’s funeral and the subsequent presidential election, the newspapers bestowed a lack of agency on Chavez supporters, presenting them as merely unthinking followers, incapable of making rational decisions, thus mirroring Lupien’s findings on the Venezuelan media. For example, The Times (6 March 2013) claimed that Chavez was ‘A larger-than-life figure who commanded an almost cultlike adoration from devotees of his selfstyled revolution, his domination of power left little room for other political personalities to shine.’

Therefore, according to the media, working-class Venezuelans did not support the government rationally, but were part of a brainwashed cult. There was also a marked tendency to portray groups of chavistas as whipped up into a neurotic rage, as the following two quotes demonstrate:

His frenzied followers just don’t want to say goodbye, and Hugo Chavez’s heirs say maybe they won’t have to. (The Washington Post, 16 March 2013)


El Comandante was brought back from the dead, appearing on giant video screens working frenzied crowds. (The Daily Telegraph, 12 April 2013)

‘Frenzy’ connotes uncontrollable, irrational or wild behaviour, indicating that groups supporting the government are hysterical, manic or insane rather than rational actors. The word is often used for irrational animals or even vermin – ‘a feeding frenzy’ – and serves to dehumanise the dark-skinned, lower-class majority of the country. The word was never used to describe opposition movements.

The consequence of Chavez’s rule, according to one newspaper, was to have unleashed a beast on Venezuela, The Miami Herald (5 March 2013) claiming that, as a result, ‘Venezuela today is a polarised society divided between the intolerant supporters of Mr. Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution and a democratic opposition that, against all odds, has waged a courageous fight for a democratic alternative’. This simultaneously demonises the chavistas and lionises the opposition.

The subsequent presidential election pitted Chavez’s vice-president, Nicolas Maduro, against opposition leader Henrique Capriles. While the chavistas viewed the election as free and fair, the opposition claimed that, though the vote was secure, the government used state media and resources in its favour and that it pressured its employees to vote for Maduro, skewing the playing field.

The international reaction to the election was overwhelmingly positive. The Union of South American nations fully endorsed the proceedings, as did many other important states such as Canada, Mexico, Russia and Spain. In fact, the only country in the world that did not quickly recognise the results was the US. This was despite the fact that the Carter Center, a Nobel-prize winning election monitoring organisation that the US government paid to observe the elections, endorsed them. It found that, in fact, Capriles received almost three times as much coverage as Maduro on TV, most of it positive, while Maduro’s coverage was mostly negative. Furthermore, it found that less than one per cent of people reported being pressured to vote either way, but twice as many were pressured to vote for Capriles as for Maduro.35 Indeed, in 2012 former President Jimmy Carter noted that the election system in Venezuela was the ‘best in the world’.

Nevertheless, the western media presented it as an unfair fight between a plucky commendable, democratic opposition and an authoritarian government that ‘whipped’ its ‘poverty-stricken supporters into a frenzy’ (The Daily Telegraph, 6 March 2013) and could count on the blind support of ‘a million client-citizens and their families’ who were compelled to vote for their government due to working in the state sector. (The Daily Telegraph, 7 March 2013) It also presented as a strong possibility that, if the chavistas lost, they might not accept the result. For example, The Guardian (5 March 2013) noted that ‘Questions abound. If Capriles wins, will chavista civilian militias and factions in the armed forces accept it?’ (emphasis added).

Quotes such as these highlight the media’s disdain for chavista groups. They are also demonstrative of the same tendency to paramilitarise chavista groups that Hernandez found in the Venezuelan media. In reality, the chavistas have always accepted defeats immediately, even in close referendum losses, as in in 2007 – whereas it is the opposition that has continually refused to accept election results and resorted to violence in a number of instances. Indeed, it refused to accept any chavista victories until 2006. Capriles himself had a history of violence, including kidnapping the Minister of the Interior during the 2002 coup and leading a crowd that attacked the Cuban embassy. Yet the question continually asked was not if the opposition will accept the results (which they did not). ‘Militias’ refers to the Bolivarian Circles, which chavistas call civil society organisations, but which are frequently described as armed paramilitaries by the Venezuelan opposition. Throughout this research, no opposition organisation was referred to as a militia, even armed ones that conducted night attacks on the Venezuelan army and police.

In this vein, The Daily Telegraph (14 April 2013) reported:

Many questioned whether Mr Maduro and his Chavista supporters would accept an opposition victory if it happened – and predicted violence if it did … ‘I trust the machines, it’s the humans I worry about’, added Mr Marrero, ‘If Capriles wins we can expect violence. The chavistas don’t know how to lose.’

The Miami Herald (5 March 2013) was also worried about violence, quoting one observer:

Armando, 29, said his joy was tempered with concern about reaction among pro-Chávez supporters, known as chavistas, back home. ‘This is the first step to big change’, he said. ‘I hope nothing bad happens, and that ignorant people don’t resort to violence.’

Fortunately, no ‘ignorant people’ resorted to violence. The mob stayed home, peacefully. Unfortunately, Capriles told his civil society supporters to ‘vent their anger’ on the streets. The subsequent riots led to seven people, all chavistas, being killed.36

With no prospect of quickly coming to power electorally after losing the 2013 election, the opposition split into two factions. The more moderate of the two was led by Henrique Capriles, which favoured continuing to pursue the electoral route. The other, led by Leopoldo Lopez, favoured a return to the violent putsch tactics. Lopez argued in October 2013, ‘We have to hurry the exit of the government … Nicolas Maduro must go sooner rather than later … from my point of view, the method is secondary, what is important is the determination to reach our goals at any cost.’37

Lopez pursued his tactic, and in the spring and summer of 2014 anti-government demonstrations engulfed Caracas. They came to be referred to as La Salida (the exit [of Maduro]) or the guarimbas. Forty-three people died in high-profile clashes between the opposition and government forces, with fourteen deaths directly attributed to government security forces and twenty-three due to opposition violence.38 The prolonged demonstrations caused massive damage and disruption to the country, calculated at US$15 billion by the government.

Chavistas accept that the police and National Guard were guilty of some killings but claim the government showed ‘amazing restraint’ in the face of a violent coup attempt. Oppositionists concede that the protesters caused many deaths, but charge that the government repression was worse, resulting in a widespread ‘tropical pogrom’ against largely peaceful civil society groups.39 The local media generally favoured the second interpretation. El Universal (19 March 2014), for example, condemned the ‘violence’ of chavista ‘armed groups’ against ‘students and families who have peacefully demonstrated’.

It was this interpretation that was dominant in the West. Ciccariello-Maher notes how the protesters expertly presented themselves as akin to the Arab Spring or the Occupy movement on social media, circulating pictures showing alleged government repression, despite the fact that many images were not even from Venezuela at all.40 The events made front-page news around the world, going viral on social media as celebrities like Cher, Madonna and Kevin Spacey shared their full support for the opposition.

The class and racial aspect to the protests was noticed immediately by Venezuelans, the media and academics alike.41 Light-skinned private university students led the guarimbas, which occurred in eighteen of the country’s 335 municipalities, primarily affluent, white, opposition-controlled areas, and did not spread to working-class areas. The guarimbas were highly unpopular, with opposition-aligned polling firms finding that, by April, two-thirds of Venezuelans were against them (although a majority of rich Venezuelans supported them) with others putting their unpopularity as high as 87 per cent. This was primarily due to their violence, which included attacking government food shops, bombing the Caracas metro, attacking ambulances and over 160 doctors, some of whom the protesters attempted to burn to death, destroying free universities aimed at poor students and attacking the Housing Ministry, bombing kindergartens, poisoning cities’ drinking water and even garrotting innocent passers-by as part of their campaign.42 The list of targets represented a clear political message: the institutions attacked were the representatives of the flagship social-democratic programmes in health, education, transport and housing supported by the dark-skinned, subaltern classes.

Yet the media presented the guarimbas not as a coup attempt by the same group as in 2002 but as the actions of virtuous peaceful protesters who were subjected to a sustained violent onslaught by a dictatorship and its goons (emphasis added throughout). The Independent (18 February 2014) noted that the White House had ‘Voiced concern that the government was using security forces and armed gangs to break up peaceful protests.’ While The Times (15 April 2014) claimed that ‘The hated colectivos – armed gangs of government loyalists on motorbikes – have been showing up at the houses of student demonstrators and threatening to kill them’. And, not to be outdone, The Daily Telegraph (21 February 2014) presented Venezuela as falling into an ochlocracy (mob rule), stating that: ‘Maduro has let the worst people take over – surrendering authority to radical mobs and corrupt officials in a bid to keep them all on side’. Furthermore, ‘Beneath the surface, civil society has been allowed to stagnate. Now that Chavez is dead and the magic gone, there is anarchy’.

‘The worst people’ were not those garrotting innocent passers-by or bombing kindergartens: that was ‘civil society’ ‘peacefully protesting’. The worst people were the groups of working-class Venezuelans who did not support the guarimbas.

Thus, the British newspapers used the same framing as the local opposition: presenting opposition groups as respectable civil society ‘protesters’ employing their right to demonstrate, while simultaneously disparaging chavista groups as violent, unthinking gangs or mobs. At no point was any opposition group referred to as a horde or a mob, while a working-class or chavista group was never referred to as civil society throughout the entire sample of 501 articles.

However, the US newspapers presented the situation more emphatically still, presenting as fact highly dubious claims about who was responsible for the violence and demanding international action and, sometimes, regime change. The Washington Post (30 March 2014) claimed that:

Venezuelans despair at the lack of international interest in the political crisis that is rocking their country. Since anti-government protests began early last month, at least 34 people have been killed, most of them opposition supporters gunned down by security forces or government-backed gangs.

This begs the question of who exactly is a Venezuelan to The Washington Post. Evidently not the large majority of mostly dark-skinned, mostly working-class Venezuelans who opposed the guarimbas. If we imagine a similar situation in the US, it is doubtful that, if Black Lives Matter had bombed US government buildings in an express attempt to overthrow the president while killing police, National Guard and army units, they would be described as peaceful protesters by the media.

The Miami Herald (17 February 2014) described the events as ‘protests’ led by a ‘responsible leader’ in Lopez who wanted a ‘peaceful march’ to ‘end persecution and freedom for detained demonstrators’ but that ‘Instead of responding to the concerns of demonstrators by changing course or talking to his adversaries, Mr Maduro unleashed government-backed thugs who promptly escalated the violence on the streets’ (emphasis added). The Miami Herald (26 February 2014) also chastised President Obama for inaction, claiming that ‘Many Latin American experts in Washington agree that the Obama Administration cannot look the other way as peaceful protesters are massacred by government-supported armed thugs’ (emphasis added).

However, the 2014 guarimbas petered out under the weight of their own unpopularity and the lack of international will to help them. Indeed, the Union of South American Nations strongly backed Maduro and condemned the opposition’s violence, with many nations labelling the guarimbas as a US government-designed coup attempt.

The use of the word ‘thug’ was particularly prevalent and notable in the sample. The examples cited above were written by westerners for a US audience. Those writing or reading the articles understand what ‘thug’ means in a North American context. It has a highly racialised usage in the western, English-language press, with blackness and criminality treated as synonymous in media and culture.43 Today the word is aimed at demonising and criminalising black men, argues Coleman, having supplanted ‘nigger’ in common parlance.44

In total, twenty of the 501 articles, 4 per cent, used the loudest racial dog-whistle to refer to working-class groups. It should be noted that this was not 4 per cent of articles on Chavez supporters, but 4 per cent of all relevant articles including the word ‘Venezuela’ anywhere in the text. This included everything from articles about oil, to baseball teams, to obituaries, to Miami residents’ problems, to the actions of the US government. The usage of the word was much more common in the later sample periods (2013, 2014), long after its significance had been well documented and understood. The study also tracked the use of ‘thug’ to refer to opposition or middle-class groups. There were none.

The use of the word to describe chavistas was also common in the UK press. The Guardian (7 March 2013) claimed that ‘Thuggish, armed civilian groups also swore to defend the revolution against enemies within and without. These included opponents in the media, the universities and the church.’ While The Telegraph (7 March 2013) in its story recounted how, at Chavez’s funeral, ‘For a moment, there is a tense stand-off, as the guard – a hired thug not much more than 18-years-old – demands to know who is taking the photograph.’

The use of the word ‘thug’ to refer only to lower-class, dark-skinned groups and never to opposition groups, even when they were engaging in violence, serves only to bolster the notion that it is dog-whistle racism.

Since 1998, the western media has shown an overwhelming tendency to represent chavista civil society groups as dangerous gangs, hordes or mobs, while simultaneously depicting opposition groups as respectable members of civil society, mirroring the local media’s positions. Whenever words such as ‘mob’, ‘gangs’ or ‘hordes’ were used, it was solely in reference to the largely working-class, largely dark-skinned government-sympathetic organisations and never once used to describe the largely white, upper-class opposition groups. Likewise, the dog-whistle term ‘thug’ was used only to describe chavistas inside a context where chavista and black are understood to be virtually synonymous.

What makes this particularly notable is that the sample periods coincided with the height of the opposition’s offensives to force the chavistas out of office through violence. In 2002, it launched a deadly coup against the democratically elected government, bringing in a short-lived dictatorship. In 2013, the opposition refused to accept the result of internationally recognised elections, leading to deadly riots. And in 2014 it launched a campaign aimed at forcefully removing the president once again. Yet across all the seven newspapers sampled those opposition groups were framed as ‘civil society’, while those opposing their actions were mobs, thugs, and paramilitary hordes.

The western media presented the chavistas as intrinsically violent paramilitaries in the same fashion that Hernandez found the Venezuelan media did. They were portrayed as the mindless, irrational followers of a master illusionist demagogue, who whipped them into a frenzy, in the same way that the local press did, as Lupien demonstrated.45 The seven newspapers in this sample overwhelmingly followed the two-group distinction of opposition ‘civil society’ and the chavista ‘mob’ catalogued by Duno-Gottberg.46 The term ‘civil society’ in this context is an empty signifier, used exclusively to refer to higher-class opposition groups in the same manner as in the Venezuelan media. Western mass media appear to uniformly fall back upon the same, broad tropes as Venezuelan media. That the coverage of Chavez and his supporters is negative and of the opposition, positive, is, perhaps, unsurprising, given the geopolitical positions of the United States and United Kingdom with regards to Venezuela, but the closeness with which the international media mirrors the local opposition’s lead highlights how interconnected are the two groups.

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Alan MacLeod is a sociologist from the Glasgow University Media Group who specialises in media theory, social media and Latin America. After completing his PhD in 2017 he has published two books, Bad News From Venezuela: twenty years of fake news and misreporting and The Propaganda Model in the Information Age: still manufacturing consent, both with Routledge.

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