All too often White House statements about Iraq's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, and other dubious justifications for war, were taken at face value by the American press. Now there is another example of the triumph of misinformation, which - not coincidentally - again concerns an oil-rich country where the U.S. government seeks "regime change." Venezuela. This time, however, it is not a dictatorship but a democracy that is under attack.
President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela was democratically elected, first in 1998, and then again in 2000 under a new constitution that was approved by voters in a referendum. Despite massive political turmoil, including a 64-day oil strike that crippled the economy, there have been no states of emergency or suspension of constitutional rights under his government.
In fact, under the Chávez government, in contrast to past governments of Venezuela, freedom of speech, assembly and association have been absolute. "I believe that freedom of speech is as alive in Venezuela as it is in any other country I've visited," former President Jimmy Carter said during a visit there last year.
If the reader has a different impression, it is because American reporting on Venezuela generally includes far-fetched opposition charges - that Chávez is creating a "Castro-communist dictatorship," for example - often without rebuttal.
In April last year, Chávez was briefly overthrown by a military coup that the Bush administration initially welcomed. The coup was preceded by the traditional hallmarks of a Washington-sponsored regime change, including increased U.S. funding to opposition groups and high-level meetings between U.S. officials and key people involved in the coup.
The Bush administration continues to intervene politically in Venezuela. Last month Washington cut off credit to Venezuela from the U.S. Export-Import Bank. According to foreign diplomats here, the head of the bank privately admitted that this was done for political reasons.
In the last few weeks there has been a concerted public relations effort both in the United States and in Venezuela, joined by the Bush administration, to create a false impression about a proposed referendum to recall Chávez. The Bush administration wants people to believe that the government signed an agreement with the opposition to hold a recall referendum, and that Chávez will be to blame if it does not happen. The editorial boards of several major U.S. newspapers have already endorsed this script.
But the government signed no such agreement - that would be like Governor Gray Davis of California agreeing to a recall election before anyone gathered signatures and filed a petition. The opposition will have to submit the signatures and follow the constitutional procedures - just as in California - before any referendum is held.
Furthermore, the opposition is divided and it is not clear that the most powerful elements really want a referendum. It carries more risk for them than it does for Chávez. They are already discredited for having led a badly bungled coup attempt and a strike that devastated the economy and won them nothing. If they lose the referendum, or fail to gather the required 2.5 million valid signatures to obtain one, their game could be over.
Even if the opposition were to win, they would only win a new election - in which Chávez would probably be eligible to run. And it is very likely that he would win - no one else in Venezuela has anywhere near his level of support.
This has been the opposition's main problem for the last four and a half years: They can't win an election because the vast majority of the country is poor and has rejected the traditional governing elite after 40 years of corrupt rule. So they have turned to other means, such as the military coup, the oil strike and other efforts to destabilize the government.
In the coming months most American news reports will blame whatever goes wrong in Venezuela on the Chávez government. Those who want to hear the other side of the story - or even get a rough idea of what is actually going on - had better be prepared to spend some time digging around on the Internet.
The writer is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research
Copyright © 2003 the International Herald Tribune