Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez “does like this country” and is “passionate,” “dignified,” “intelligent” and loves coffee.
That’s the conclusion of an ABC exclusive interview with a man who has threatened to shut off oil to the United States and who even human rights groups criticize for his abuse of power.
The interview, previewed on the March 16 “Good Morning America,” was billed as one that “pulled no punches” by anchor Robin Roberts. Instead, it showed reporter Barbara Walters downplaying Chavez’s actions against the United States and depicting his overtly hostile comments as more of a “dislike for George Bush.”
“As I talk to you, you are a very dignified man,” Walters commented, “but we have heard you call the president of the United States a devil, a donkey, a drunk, a liar, a coward, a murderer.”
While Walters asked Chavez about his criticism of Bush, she downplayed his criticism and threats to America, which even Chavez was more honest about. “It is the government and the elite of the U.S. which is overwhelming all the countries in the world,” he said, notably not just blaming Bush as Walters had claimed.
It isn’t new for the networks to give Chavez the kid-glove treatment. In a Business & Media Institute report released in 2006, BMI revealed that the networks called him simply “leftist” or “left-leaning” and were reluctant to admit he was more than just an elected president.
Reporter Dan Harris of ABC’s “World News Tonight” was more up front about Chavez in a Nov. 6, 2005, report: “Venezuelan leftist leader Hugo Chavez, who led an anti-American rally while talks for free trade were taking place.”
The short preview parroted the public relations comments about his low-cost oil donations and made no reference to Chavez taking the power to rule by decree, curtailing press freedom or seizing and nationalizing oil assets.
In one rapid-fire response to a question, Walters explained even more about Chavez:
“Look, he says that we’re trying to assassinate him, that the C.I.A. is trying to assassinate him. And he has said that we might invade. If we invaded, and he says that that’s not going to happen, those would be the only circumstances, he says, in which he would cut off oil. But remember, Robin, that he has been selling cheap oil in this country through Citgo, which they own, in the Northeast when there are cold spells like now. He helped in Katrina. Now, this could be P.R., But oil is oil. So, so far, no plans to cut it off. And that’s good news.”
During the six-and-a-half-minute piece, Walters and Roberts called Chavez:
Roberts: “The controversial president of Venezuela.”
Walters: “you are a very dignified man.”
Roberts: “He is a passionate man that's very apparent.”
Walters: “This is a very intelligent man.”
Walters and Chavez also meandered through a discussion of Chavez’s personal life and even his obsession with coffee, as she offered the dictator her own cup. He responded: “Yes, you didn't drink yours. It must be cold. Give it to me, I will drink it. Yeah, I will drink it. I drink a lot of coffee. Beyond any advisable or any medical recommendation.”
The rest of the interview will air on “20/20” March 16.