This week, Venezuela made headlines around the world as the country was plunged into further political chaos when opposition leader and self-declared president Juan Guaido broadcast a video online calling for a military uprising to remove President Nicolas Maduro from office.
A battle broke out on the streets, as well as the airwaves and online as both political sides fought to get their messages out.
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Guaido’s video, filmed outside the La Carlota airbase, showed him with armed troops for the first time – and is viewed as an attempt to convince the public that Maduro had lost the support of the military.
Maduro fought back on Twitter and on national TV broadcasts to assure the country that he had not lost his iron grip on his army – which has kept him in power since the face-off with Guaido began earlier this year.
For journalists covering the story and for news consumers around the world, this is a story that needs to be navigated with caution. The narratives are polarised and the media organisations covering the events are, as ever, influenced by their geopolitical positionings.
Marcela Pizarro from Al Jazeera’s The Listening Post sat down a few weeks back with reporter and author Jon Lee Anderson, who has been covering Latin America for many years, to talk about the challenges of reporting on a story like Venezuela.
Al Jazeera: During the Cold War, Latin America was very much a focal point for foreign media as socialist movements emerged around the continent and were met by US-backed force. When the Berlin Wall came down, the geopolitical centre of foreign coverage moved elsewhere, especially to the Middle East. You have covered both but for most foreign journalists, Latin America has become an unknown territory. What do you think the challenges are for foreign journalists when covering a story like Venezuela?
Jon Lee Anderson: Venezuela really does pose some serious challenges for news coverage today, and as journalists covering Venezuela there are a lot of interests at stake right now. Venezuela is emerging as one of the principal stages for what is essentially Cold War 2.0. You have the Russians playing alongside the Americans and even the Chinese.
Everybody has something they want to push, so whose agenda do you want to believe? I would say try not to believe anything you hear.
Al Jazeera: Nicolas Maduro’s predecessor was the highly telegenic Hugo Chavez, whose popularity, to a large extent was built on his media presence. For Maduro, that was a tough act to follow. How do you think Maduro has faired when it comes to his relationship with media?
Anderson: He was Bambi in the headlights in his first year or so on stage. And that was largely how the media dealt with him since he’d taken over from Chavez. That’s no longer the case. He learned to be comfortable in power and he has learned how to deploy it for his own political survival.
Now, does that make him a nice guy? No, not necessarily. But at what point do you, as a journalist, begin calling him a dictator? Is he a dictator because he used trickery and chicanery to out-fox and to exile or place under house arrest his chief rivals, his political rivals?
I think it makes him into a complicated political actor. I’m not sure that it’s fair yet to call him a dictator. I try to be careful about the words I use in the same way that I am when suddenly certain political organisations that use violence are called “terrorist organisations” but other organisations that use violence aren’t.
Al Jazeera: In February, images of a humanitarian aid truck stationed at the Colombian border with Venezuela made news around the world when it was set alight. What did you make of this story and how foreign media managed it?
Anderson: When you watched CNN, or Fox News, there was a clip where, apparently, a truck had been set on fire. Immediately, everybody went with that story. Within a couple of hours, Marco Rubio, the American senator, had tweeted that this was an outrageous act by the regime – he tweeted that to his millions of followers, and other politicians followed. One of the reasons why heads of state are now using social media is because they’re aware of the power of it.
Within a few days it was just received wisdom that this evil regime had not only prevented the aid from coming in – which it did, we saw that they prevented the aid from coming in – but that they also burned it.
But as it turned out, it was one of the opposition demonstrators who had thrown a Molotov cocktail from the Colombian side of the bridge that landed in the truck – which went up in flames.
The Trump administration built up a story for several weeks that this was going to be the culminating moment of the standoff with the evil Maduro regime which could not feed its people, hadn’t funded the hospitals, and that millions of people had fled.
Some of which is a fact: there is negligence, there’s incompetence, there’s ineptitude. And in a functioning democracy, normally, that government wouldn’t stay in power.
Nonetheless, the Trump administration and its allies built in its entire Venezuela policy predicated on the idea that once they arrive to their aid at the border (and they had plenty of cheerleaders filming it and writing stories about it) that the Venezuelan military on the other side of the bridge would simply see the error of their ways and fall back and welcome in the aid and Maduro would slink off into some kind of humiliated exile. Well, that didn’t happen.
Al Jazeera: Maduro has persistently accused the US and its media of supporting the overthrow of a legitimate government. To what extent do these kinds of stories add credence to this?
Anderson: I was in Venezuela when that story came out. It was immediately used by the Maduro government as a bludgeon against the opposition. It was immediately turned into pro-government propaganda.
This is part of the problem: when your information is immediately used as propaganda to wound or humiliate or defeat one side in a political conflict you have to be very careful about what you write.
Now, we have the Trump administration, and we see an American president who is so far beyond the normal calculus of political definition he’s created a deranged political and media landscape where we watch him every day attempting to manipulate the public mood – very often at our expense and at the media’s expense.
So, what should we believe when we hear him or his people talk about Nicolas Maduro?
And there is my point: I’m not saying that we should necessarily agree with Nicolas Maduro or think that he’s Robin Hood, but we need to really be careful now about what we know and what we think we know.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.