Ads suggest that money from oil is benefiting Venezuela's poor
Venezuela's New Campaign
The New York Times
Venezuela's New Campaign
By JUAN FORERO
Published: September 30, 2004
WHEN countries advertise, they usually plug balmy weather or low taxes, all the better to lure tourist dollars or big-spending companies searching for investment opportunities.
But oil-rich Venezuela, long attractive to American investors though plagued in recent years by political tumult, is now trying a totally different approach: pitching itself as an egalitarian nirvana where petro-dollars are funneled straight to the poor.
The idea, say Venezuelan officials, is to show American business executives and policy makers that a happy country is a stable one, even if many in Venezuela would disagree.
The ads, placed in recent weeks in The New Yorker, The Economist, The New York Times and other publications, come after weeks of political turmoil that culminated last month in a recall referendum that Venezuela's firebrand populist president, Hugo Ch?vez, handily won.
With Mr. Ch?vez now more firmly in power than ever, having once again thwarted a fractured opposition movement, his government has stepped up its effort to counter the harsh image painted by his foes on Capitol Hill and Wall Street.
For three years, the representatives for the opposition have aggressively lobbied American officials to support anti-Ch?vez efforts, including a 2002 coup that temporarily ousted the left-leaning leader. Modeled on Cuban exile organizations opposed to Fidel Castro, the Venezuelan opposition has largely focused on casting Mr. Ch?vez's government as a dangerously leftist regime that threatens regional stability.
The government's new ads, designed by Underground Advertising, a small San Francisco firm that has created ads for nonprofit organizations like Earthjustice and the Breast Cancer Fund, aim to convey quickly the new direction of Venezuela, particularly now that Mr. Ch?vez's government is feeling comfortable with its new mandate.
"We didn't need to get too clever, or too cute in the headlines,'' said Charlie Cardillo, creative director and a partner in the firm. "We can't tell the whole story, but we can begin with this ad. It's a conversation starter.''
Typically, ads directed at opinion makers and investors are dry, dense affairs, usually loaded with economic jargon and hagiographic portraits of the elected (or, often, nonelected) officials. But the new Venezuela ads skip any talk of economic opportunities, low taxes, gleaming infrastructure or cost savings. Nor are there photographs of palm-lined beaches and lush jungles, typical of marketing to the vacationer.
Instead, the ads, which are also running in Roll Call and The International Herald Tribune, remain tightly focused on Mr. Ch?vez's social spending spree, $1.7 billion and counting this year alone, all of it generated from the state-owned oil company, Petr?leos de Venezuela. "Something remarkable is happening in Venezuela today,'' the ads proclaim.
One ad features three frames of smiling Venezuelans, the text reads: "In the past Venezuela's oil wealth benefited a few: Now it benefits a few million.''
Another says: "You no longer have to be an oil executive to benefit from Venezuela's oil wealth. Just ask Yasmeli Espinoza."
The country remains poor, the ads say, but the huge outlay of oil revenues is expanding education, health care and housing for all. "There's a new sense of excitement and national pride in Venezuela today,'' the ads report.
To the determined opponents of Venezuela's government, who make up a coalition of business leaders, private media owners and political parties, the ads are little more than propaganda intended to hide failed economic policies and an increasingly authoritarian agenda. Mr. Ch?vez's government is using oil money to buy loyalty, those adversaries say, doing little to restore investor confidence in Venezuela or create jobs.
"Remember, all publicity, all propaganda shows people smiling and people living well, even if you're selling alcohol and cigarettes,'' said Bruno Scheuren, a Venezuelan who makes videos for companies and is active in antigovernment politics. "And what they are selling here is a fiction. They are images that do not reflect reality.''
Kevin McCauley, who writes about how countries advertise and lobby for Jack O'Dwyer's Newsletter, a Manhattan publication that tracks public relations and advertising, said: "I love those power-to-the-people ads that Venezuela is running. The purpose, of course, is to show that the Ch?vez government has grassroots support, and counter Bush administration spin that he is a lefty commie who loves to hang out with Fidel.'' Mr. McCauley said the ads representedd "more of a people-to-people'' approach that is "more flower-powerish.''
"It jumped right out at me,'' he said. "I saw it and it was very effective.''
Venezuela's government, which won office in a 1998 landslide that demonstrated popular disdain for two corrupt parties that had long ruled the country, is new to selling itself. But after an economically devastating antigovernment strike last year, the government mounted a l public relations effort aimed at winning hearts and minds abroad.
From the summer of 2003 until last summer, the government has spent more than $1.6 million on lobbying in Washington, according to the Center for Public Integrity in Washington. Venezuela reaches government officials through Patton Boggs, one of Washington's best-known legal and public affairs firms, and reporters and policy makers through the Venezuela Information Office, a lobbying organization of left-leaning activists created and financed by Venezuela.
Those advocates not only spiff up Venezuela's image, but they doggedly unearth damaging evidence of Bush administration ties to opposition groups determined to remove Mr. Ch?vez from office. Collecting documents from the National Endowment for Democracy, a nonprofit agency financed by the United States government, activists showed that $2.2 million was spent from 2000 to 2003 to finance organizations like Sumate, which helped organize the recall effort, or to pay for training for Venezuela's political parties.
Such revelations proved extremely useful in Venezuela, where anti-American sentiment mined by Mr. Ch?vez helped him win support. But it did little to dispel claims outside of Venezuela that his government was undemocratic and radical.
The president's rambling attacks on the Bush administration, accusing the United States of orchestrating efforts to remove him, made him look abroad like the tin-pot leader of a banana republic. Venezuela's sliding economy, along with recurring reports of government meddling in the media and out-of-control National Guard troops, did not help.
The new ads, though, present a different direction as the country tries to put a positive spin on its leftist government and what Mr. Ch?vez calls his peaceful revolution, said Bernardo ?lvarez, the ambassador in Washington, whose office commissioned and paid for the campaign.
Mr. ?lvarez said the government wanted to explain why oil-generated social spending was not only popular with many of Venezuela's 25 million people, but that it was also bringing stability that would make the country more attractive to investors.
He declined to reveal how much the ad campaign cost, but full-page ads in The New Yorker run about $75,000 and quarter-page ads in the Op-Ed page of The Times cost $45,000.
"It's a way for us to say, 'Look, sirs, if you want to invest in the country, let me tell you what it is that we're doing,' '' Mr. ?lvarez said.