In May this year, political media observers were treated to the type of cyclonic broadcast and print frenzy that blows in once in a while. The private visit to London of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez simultaneously sent left wing commentators and activists into raptures and generated rather hysterical and unbalanced comment from centre right outlets, not least from Andrew Neill of the BBC's The Daily Politics, who machine gunned negative conjecture at me for what seemed like far longer than five minutes.
Chavez is of course a controversial figure. His policies are perceived as radical and his political demeanour is stereotyped as eccentric and erratic, in a fashion not dissimilar to historic western characterisation of Latin American heads of state. But the scale and significance of the change Chavez is bringing to Venezuela, and the ramifications for the wider region, deserve calmer, detailed analysis.
The Venezuelan presidential jet hadn't even landed on the Heathrow tarmac when news editors set about the unedifying process of caricaturing and disparaging our guest. This is a relatively problematic challenge for the editorial elite when one considers Chavez's democratic credentials. Having been elected president with an absolute majority of votes on two occasions (1998 and 2000), Chavez also won a recall referendum on his presidency with an absolute majority of votes in August 2004.
His ruling coalition has won absolute majorities in two sets of national elections and three regional elections and the administration secured absolute majorities in three popular referenda held in 1999 (leading to the introduction of a new constitution for the 'Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela') and 2001. All these elections have been verified as free and fair by numerous international bodies, including the EU, the OAS and the Jimmy Carter Centre for Democracy.
But the UK media are not deterred by a concept as nebulous as fact. In addition to the Independent taking a comprehensive swipe at Chavez, a Times editorial described Chavez as a 'dictator in waiting' while the Telegraph introduced British readers to Chavez and his policies by explaining: 'Now the anticipation is over, and today, flush with six trillion dollars worth of oil reserves, Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela, flies in to fill the despot-of-the-month slot at London mayor Ken Livingstone's lunch table.' The fact that Chavez has decided to use his nation's oil reserves to ameliorate the abject poverty suffered by a majority of Venezuelans for decades is obviously beyond the pale for many UK editors.
It has been quickly forgotten that during the 1980s and 1990s there was an outrageous pilfering of Venezuela's vast oil income by the country's business, political...