When Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez died last week, I turned to Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR) expecting a sensitive, nuanced view of what Chavez’s legacy would be. I found a program hosted by John Munson, which I assumed would attempt a reasonable evaluation of what Chavez accomplished or failed to do, and what his death portends for Venezuela and Latin America in general. Mr. Munson has in the past hosted some interesting and thoughtful programs on WPR.
Imagine my surprise when I listened to him this time. For his program he discussed Hugo Chavez’s career and the effects of his rule with William Dobson, whom he presented as a journalist for Slate magazine. It was soon clear that Mr. Munson had very limited knowledge of Hugo Chavez and Venezuela. Mr. Dobson some years ago wrote a book on the dictators of the world in which he included President Chavez, despite the fact that Chavez came to the Presidency of Venezuela by winning election to the office and was re-elected to successive terms in elections declared to be free and fair by such international observers as former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Mr. Munson had no trouble with the classification of Chavez as a dictator. Nor did he question Dobson’s assertion that Chavez’s actions and institutions would have little future effect upon other South American countries. In fact, Hugo Chavez led the way in establishing political and economic ties among South American countries which are very likely to result in their charting a successful common course in the future. Likewise, President Chavez’s government reduced the percentage of families in poverty from an estimated 80% to close to 20%, while eliminating illiteracy, extending free education to all, and building clinics which provide health care to millions of rural residents who had previously had no access to medical care. And for Wisconsin residents, it seems important to take into account that the Chavez government provided heating oil for poor families in this state through Venezuelan government-owned Citgo. In fact, the Chavez government reportedly provided $61 million of such aid last year to families in the United States, including in the city of Milwaukee; meanwhile, Exxon-Mobil, Conoco-Phillips and other U.S.-based companies declined to participate in this aid program The apparent wishful thinking of Dobson that Chavez will be considered a failure was not effectively questioned by Mr. Munson, who may have been overwhelmed by Dobson’s credentials of graduating from Middlebury College with high honors, completing a law degree at Harvard University and having edited the magazine “Foreign Affairs” for a time. Dobson’s characterization of Hugo Chavez’s government bears little relation to reality—as Mr. Munson would have known had he prepared in advance of the program by reading diverse sources on President Chavez. (Parenthetically, I have degrees from Harvard, Stanford and Wisconsin and some 40 years of experience in Latin America, but I don’t expect that fact to deter anyone who interviews me about Latin America from asking tough, probing questions.)
My principal criticism of Mr. Munson’s WPR program is that he relied almost completely upon Mr. Dobson, taking very few calls, so that his radio audience had little opportunity to get a more complete perspective on Hugo Chavez. The calls that he did take were by quite uninformed listeners, although I have been assured by the station that Mr. Munson did not pick just callers totally critical of Chavez. I spent 45 minutes waiting to have my call put on the air, but it may well be that there were so many callers that Mr. Munson could not get to my call. Which still leaves me with the two basic criticisms I have of his work: 1) he did not study in any depth the activities of Hugo Chavez in preparing for his radio program (or he showed stunning ignorance in interpreting what he read about Chavez) and 2) he did not take many calls, which, had he done so, would have shown the shallowness and prejudice of his interviewee, Dobson. One would hope for better things from Mr. Munson and WPR in the future.
March 13, 2013