February 21, 2003

The Full Mugabe

There’s one positive side to this whole Carlos Fernández incarceration hubbub: the foreign press is finally taking the gloves off. After months of not quite knowing how to deal with the crisis, of not being entirely sure whether to treat Chávez like a normal democratic president or an autocrat, the Fernández episode seems to have tipped the scales. It’s the Mugabization of Hugo Chávez in the court of world public opinion. It’s still far from complete, but now it’s definitely on the way.

Consider this remarkable story by Scott Wilson in the Washington Post. I’ve been friends with Scott for a long time and consider him one of the best journalists around – he’s not the kind of observer you can snow under with propaganda, much less recruit him to peddle yours. For a long time, I’ve had the feeling he understands, at a gut level, how dangerous Chávez is. But – and this is really difficult for opposition-minded Venezuelans to understand - Scott doesn’t draw a paycheck to tell the world how his gut is feeling. As a reporter, his code of ethics dictates that he can’t go any further than the facts allow. And for a long time, with Chávez going to lengths to maintain a fiction of democratic legality, the facts remained just too murky to report in Mugabian terms.

But in jailing an important opposition leader, Chávez crossed a kind of red-line, transgressing the first commandment of third world leaders hoping for sympathetic treatment in the foreign papers – thou shalt not indulge in behavior stereotypical of a dictator. And now he’s paying the price. His treatment in the Post is absolutely brutal. I’ve never seen the government take it this hard in a reputable foreign news story before. I think a lot of foreign journalists were, in a sense, waiting for a big stink-up to pounce – and now the stink-up is here, the government's heavy autocratic character is in plain for all to see, and the pouncing has started.


Reuter's is just as harsh as the Post - they played that papaya quote for all its worth - and AP is just scathing – I can’t think of a lead anywhere near as biting as this one in any AP story I've ever read out of Venezuela. In, the Wall Street Journal Marc Lifsher writes of “death-squad-style killings.” The NYT had been behind the curve on this one, but they put out a quite strong editorial condemning the arrest, and they’re flying in David González tonight, and while I only know him superficially, he’s a fantastically talented reporter and can be expected to write some good stuff.

Is it the Full Mugabe yet? Not quite. But the treatment Chávez is getting now is far, far closer to it. My fear is that he’ll use the international media blackout that will come with the start of the war on Iraq for cover – people will be very nervous here the day the war starts. Specifically, it’s easy to foresee that he’ll move against the private TV stations within minutes of the start of the war. Under normal circumstances – and the stories of the last few days bear this out – he’d be pilloried abroad for a stunt like that. But with the green lights streaking over the skies of Baghdad on CNN, who can tell?