A Force for Democracy? Representations of the US Government in American Coverage of Venezuela
- Glasgow University Media Group, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, United Kingdom
Since the election of Hugo Chavez in 1998 the United States has played a highly questionable role interfering in Venezuelan politics, funding, training, and supporting attempts at coups to remove democratically elected presidents. Yet the American media (The New York Times, Washington Post, and Miami Herald) have presented the US overwhelmingly positively, portraying it as a force for democracy and stability in the region, contrary to the wealth of official evidence. This content and discourse analysis focuses on the coverage of four key events in recent Venezuelan history and concludes that the concept of “democracy” in the media is automatically applied to official US policy, whatever it happens to be. Thus, the official American ideology of its fundamental benevolence and exceptionalism is not disputed, even when reality clearly challenges this concept.
“Freedom is not the possession of one race. We know with equal certainty that freedom is not the possession of one nation. This belief in the natural rights of man, this conviction that justice should reach wherever the sun passes, leads America into the world. With the power and resources given to us, the United States seeks to bring peace where there is conflict, hope where there’s suffering, and liberty where there’s tyranny”
—George W. Bush.
The idea that the United States is different to all other nations in that it is fundamentally benevolent, that it is uninterested in empire or glory, and that it seeks only freedom and democracy for all people can be traced back to before its inception. In 1630, the puritan pilgrim John Winthrop preached while still aboard the Arabella that the country they would found would be a “city upon a hill”; a light unto the world, an exceptional country that would provide hope for humanity. Alexis de Tocqueville popularized this American exceptionalism in academia in his two-volume Democracy in America (1835, 1840), that argued,
“The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one… Let us cease, then, to view all democratic nations under the example of the American people” (De Tocqueville, 2017: book 2, p. 42).
It has remained a central concept in social and political sciences, with scholars continuing to endorse the notion. For example, Huntington (1993, p. 83) writes that a world without US dominance would be a world with more violence and disorder and less democracy and economic growth.
The sustained international primacy of the United States is central to the welfare and security of Americans and to the future of freedom, democracy, open economies, and international order in the world.
Therefore, it is the duty of the benevolent superpower to regulate and lead the world. This notion has been espoused by successive Presidents since World War Two, through Kennedy, Reagan (most notably) to Trump. As such, it represents a cornerstone of American ideology and of how the United States views itself and a central tenet of American political life. Indeed, those who do not espouse the belief sufficiently forcefully are often attacked. In his book on American exceptionalism, former Vice-President Dick Cheney excoriated President Obama for “abandoning” Iraq, reducing America’s nuclear arsenal, for “apologizing” for the country and for his insufficiently strong belief in American exceptionalism. Cheney holds unshakeable confidence in the “empirical fact and undeniable history” that the US is “the most powerful, good, and honorable nation in the history of mankind, the exceptional nation” (Cheney and Cheney, 2016, p. 1–5).
Yet critics of the US and its foreign policy do not share this view, least of all the Venezuelan government. At the United Nations in 2006, President Hugo Chavez called President Bush “the Devil” and “the spokesman of imperialism” and accused the US of trying to continue its “current scheme of domination, exploitation, and pillage of the peoples of the world.” Chavez modeled his ideology on Venezuelan revolutionary hero Simon Bolivar, who, in 1829, predicted that the US would come to plague Latin America with misery under the guise of liberty (Gott, 2011, p. 91–101). President Chavez and his successor, Nicolas Maduro (2013–present) have spearheaded a movement aimed at independence from the United States through collective Latin American solidarity and unity (De La Barra and Dello Buono, 2012).
There is considerable evidence to support these accusations. For example, in 1953 the CIA organized a coup that overthrew the democratically elected Arbenz administration in Guatemala, leading to 40 years of war, military dictatorship and genocide (Blum, 2004, p. 71–81). After the success of the Cuban Revolution, the Kennedy administration changed its objective in Latin America from “hemispheric defense” to “internal security,” and tens of thousands of Latin American military and secret police were trained by the Office of Public Safety and the School of the Americas, including many of the hemisphere’s worst human rights abusers (Schoultz, 2014, p. 219). The US oversaw a wave of military dictatorships in Latin America; it approved of the overthrow of the liberal Goulart administration in Brazil and its replacement with a far-right military dictatorship (Blum, 2004, p. 163–171). President Nixon successfully destabilized the Allende administration in Chile, Henry Kissinger instructing the CIA to “make the economy scream,” leading to a military coup and its replacement with the far-right military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (Blum, 2004, p. 207–214).
In 1986 the World Court found the US guilty of “unlawful use of force” by waging a large-scale war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. The US responded by blocking the enforcement of the decision and escalating the war (Chomsky, 2011, p. 325–326). Schoultz (1981) found a strong correlation between Latin American countries receiving US aid and human rights abuses; that the more atrocities a government carried out, the more funding it received from the US government. A 2013 poll from Gallup worldwide surveys found that the US was overwhelmingly considered the greatest threat to peace (BBC, 2013); even in US ally states like Germany the US was considered the most dangerous country in the world. In terms of Venezuela, the government accuses the US of continually trying to overthrow it, in particular in 2002 and 2014.
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