Interview: Speaking with Hugo! author Bart Jones

Bart Jones is the author of Hugo! The Hugo Chavez Story from Mud Hut to Perpetual Revolution (Steerforth, New Hampshire 2007). Jones lived in Venezuela from 1992 to 2000, working initially as a Maryknoll lay missioner and then as a foreign correspondent for The Associated Press. He now lives in Long Island, New York with his wife and two children. The book has also just been released in the UK and will soon be published in Brazil in Portuguese.   Bart Jones is the author of Hugo! The Hugo Chavez Story from Mud Hut to Perpetual Revolution (Steerforth, New Hampshire 2007). Jones lived in Venezuela from 1992 to 2000, working initially as a Maryknoll lay missioner and then as a foreign correspondent for The Associated Press. He now lives in Long Island, New York with his wife and two children. The book has also just been released in the UK and will soon be published in Brazil in Portuguese.   

You were an AP correspondent for six years. What’s your take on Venezuela coverage in the U.S. media?

I think the media has done a less than stellar job. They’ve done a terrific job describing the opposition to Chavez, but less well explaining why he also has significant support and has won so many elections, which by the way are generally free and fair. They’ve also helped manage to create a simplistic cartoon caricature of Chavez as an evil monster and brutal dictator – for many one of the most hated people on the planet today, as if he was some kind of Hitler. Yet in his own country he is adored by millions of poor people. There is a real dichotomy between how Chavez is viewed overseas and how he is viewed by the majority in his own country. This internationalization demonization is partly the doing of the media.

The media has also demonstrated something of a double standard when it comes to Chavez. For instance, in neighboring Colombia there is clear evidence of ties between the government of President Alvaro Uribe and right-wing paramilitary death squads. Uribe’s foreign minister, his campaign manager, a cousin who is a close political ally, and dozens of congressional allies have resigned or been arrested for alleged ties to these paramilitary death squads. Uribe himself was a friend of cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar, according to declassified U.S. documents. Yet none of this is an issue in the U.S. for the general public, even though Uribe is a major U.S. ally who is getting billions in U.S. aid. Imagine if Chavez was in bed with paramilitary death squads. It would be a huge story drilled into the public’s mind.

Laptops obtained by Colombia’s government indicate Chavez has ties to the FARC guerrillas, yet this has not been proven beyond doubt – despite heavy media coverage.  The allegations, though, have served well in the campaign to demonize Chavez.

Chavez can and should be criticized for his government’s shortcomings. But it should also be put into context. The reality in Venezuela is that Chavez is not massacring people or lining opponents up against walls before firing squads. Thousands of people freely take to the streets to protest against him. People even go on television and call him a dictator or call for a coup. I don’t think those things happen in Cuba or North Korea. I think it is time for a little less hysteria about Chavez and a more balanced and rational debate about what is happening in Venezuela.  

Did you see the story a few weeks back in the New York Times about the power going out for a few hours in Caracas? I couldn’t believe that merited international coverage.
Blackouts happened all the time under past administrations, but under Chavez every misstep is reported. This is not to argue for giving him a free ride, but at least for more fair and balanced coverage. That’s what Americans aren’t getting from the media, a nuanced portrait. 

Not to ask you to speak ill of colleagues, but what is your take on New York Times coverage of Venezuela?
As you know I lived in Venezuela for eight years, most of time as a foreign correspondent for The Associated Press. I was in the belly of beast when it came to studying the coverage of Chavez. It is fair to say that the media has done a pretty poor job. I think many correspondents despise Chavez and make it clear in their writing. I know one who even had an anti-Chavez button hanging by her desk that said, "Saquemos al loco" – "Let’s get rid of the crazy one." 

Something that I found really interesting was the part you wrote about what neighborhoods U.S. journalists live in, who they grab drinks with, where they send their kids to school…

Yes, they often live in upscale neighborhoods, eat at posh restaurants. They often hang out with the people who live in country club-like neighborhoods, and send their kids to college in the U.S. and speak perfect English. But it is also their job as journalists to roll up their sleeves and go to these poor neighborhoods were Chavez is wildly popular. Some who don’t live in the country "parachute in" for a few days, stay at five star hotels and spend their few days in the country mainly speaking to wealthy opposition members and opposition-friendly political analysts. They need to also make sure they get the other side of the story. Too often they don’t. 

Why did you decide to write a biography of Hugo Chavez?

Various reasons. First, I lived in the country for eight years. I thought I’d had a lot of good—and varied—experiences down there and got to see both sides of the story. As a foreign correspondent for The Associated Press, I was living in upper, or at least middle class, neighborhoods where people despised Chavez. But when I first got there, I was a member of the Maryknoll Catholic missionary organization. For 18 months I lived in an impoverished barrio with dirt streets, no running water – the kind of place most Venezuelans live in but where journalists don’t often tread. Some of my neighbors lived in mud huts like the one Hugo Chavez grew up in.

I thought that someone had to write a book about the guy telling his full life story for the first time in an in-depth, compelling way, and that I was qualified to do it. And I felt the media coverage left a lot to be desired. Something more balanced, less hysterical was needed. Beyond that, the guy’s just got a great life story. It’s straight out of Hollywood. He was literally born in a mud hut, rose to the presidency of his country and is sitting on top of one of the largest oil reserves in the world. As a young man he got into the West Point of his country, but mainly so he could get discovered by scouts in the capital because he dreamed of becoming a major league baseball player. He then discovered Simon Bolivar, and launched a ten-year secret conspiracy ultimately to overthrow the government, which he tried to do in 1992. He failed militarily but succeeded politically when he was allowed to appear for seventy-two seconds on national television and instantly became a hero to millions of poor people outraged by the gap between rich and poor in Venezuela. He went to jail for two years, got out, ran for president against a 6’1" blonde former Miss Universe — the contest was dubbed the Beauty and the Beast — and won. His presidency has been a similar rollercoaster of life-and-death action rides.

The episode that really pushed me to write the book was the 2002 coup against Chavez during which he was kidnapped and disappeared for two days. The book was originally going to be titled "The President Is Missing." Many people who have read the book tell me it reads like a good novel – except it’s all facts.

What’s your take on the U.S. media’s coverage of the revocation of RCTV’s (a Venezuelan TV station) broadcast license?

I think the US media coverage of that issue was similar to most coverage related to Chavez. You heard one side of the story and rarely got the other. Again, the other side is that this TV station actively conspired in a coup against a democratically elected president. If CBS, NBC or ABC did that in the U.S. against Bush they would be pulled off the air in five minutes and the owners would go to jail. In Venezuela, this station was allowed to operate for five years more and then, when the reauthorization came up for the privilege of using public airwaves, the government declined to approve it. They weren’t even completely shut down, they were allowed to continue on cable. It’s always alarming when a media outlet is closed, but the circumstances were a little more complex than the mass media generally reported.

What about coverage of the 2007 constitutional referendum that, among other things, would have allowed Venezuelan presidents to be indefinitely reelected? 

The media certainly focused on the negatives and the downside. But you have to point out that in ways they were right on this one. The New York Times ran a front-page story saying that some Chavez supporters had doubts about the reforms, and that turned out to be accurate. But it should be mentioned that there is a double standard with Uribe next door, who like Chavez is also asking for indefinite reelection. Yet there’s no uproar about it.

The referendum did show that Chavez had become a little out of touch. He and his advisers thought they were going to win perhaps by a 60-40 spread – and instead they lost narrowly. It was a real turning point, a real wake up call. People want concrete problems addressed: street crime, corruption, food shortages. A little less touring the planet to promote a global Bolivarian Revolution. It will be critical whether Chavez listens and adjusts or not. If not, he will run into some problems. 

You focus far more on Chavez than on Venezuelan social movements—barrio organizations, campesino groups, unions, etc.—does that play into the US media’s thinking that Chavez is imposing a personal project on an unwilling population?

Well, it is a biography. I’m focusing on Chavez and telling his life story. But the book does talk to a degree about the social movements, especially about Chavez’s ties to social movements and the civilian Left in the years he was plotting his coup. I also dedicated a full chapter to the Caracazo uprising in 1989. Perhaps it was not organized or premeditated, but it was poor people rising up against the IMF neoliberal economic shock programs. Chavez didn’t happen in a vacuum. If it wasn’t Chavez, it would have been someone else rising to power vowing to destroy the status quo. Venezuela was running on an unsustainable system.

Why do you think stories about Chavez’s break with his wife are so appealing to the US media?

Well again, it plays into the angle of Chavez the bad guy — one more effort to demonize him. It may be a story to a certain degree, but as with anything that goes wrong with Chavez, the media wants to jump all over it. What you didn’t see much of was Chavez’s version of events. In reality, his ex-wife is quite mercurial herself and quite a problematic figure in her own right.

What do you think are the most underreported successes of the Bolivarian Revolution?

The biggest successes that you do not hear about as much in the media are the health and education programs. The government has stationed thousands of Cuban doctors in poor neighborhoods to provide preventative health care services. That is really revolutionary for people. Most Venezuelan doctors wouldn’t even set foot in these neighborhoods, much less move in and provide 24-hour services. There has been some reporting on this, but ask your average American about it and they won’t know. But they can talk all about Chavez’s alleged support for terrorists and his alleged dictatorship.

Some 1.5 million illiterates have been taught to read and write in Venezuela. It’s hard to argue that’s a negative thing.

And the Revolution’s biggest obstacles?

They haven’t done enough on corruption or crime and it really is too much of a one-man show focused on Chavez. Many people, including supporters, believe that if he left tomorrow the whole thing might collapse. On the other hand, there has been a huge mobilization of the poor. Take a look at the grassroots participatory democracy going on with the communal councils, for instance. 

What role is policy towards Venezuela playing in the current US presidential elections? 

It seems like the candidates are generally on the same page when it comes to Chavez. They’ve all bought into this image of him as an evil monster. He’s a great verbal punching bag for candidates on both sides of the aisle. McCain called him a dictator recently. 

What effect will the election results have on Venezuela? Will an Obama presidency signal a big policy shift?

Last April when I interviewed Chavez for the book twice over a two-day period, in the presidential jet, in the palace, etc., he told me he was watching the elections here closely. We just want someone who will talk to us to win, he said. We can’t even talk to the U.S. administration right now. Obama has made some statements indicating that he’s bought into the whole demonization, but has made other statements signaling he might actually sit down and talk. But I don’t think we’d see any change with McCain, or Clinton either. It really points to the question of whether it’s in the U.S. interest to be at war with this guy sitting on top of all this oil. The candidates need to get a more accurate picture of what is really happening in Venezuela. We saw what happened when the U.S. public did not get accurate information from its government and its media about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Daniel Denvir is an independent journalist in Quito, Ecuador and an editor at the forthcoming journal Caterwaul Quarterly ( Denvir is a 2008 recipient of NACLA’s Samuel Chavkin Investigative Journalism Grant.