It's almost as if the Associated Press's Ian James and the wire service's headline writers think that Hugo Chavez's latest announcement that he plans to expropriate a huge, city block-sized, nearly complete shopping mall is sort of cute and quirky. James even gave it a "clever" name: drive-by socialism.
My post at NewsBusters yesterday noted that James's initial report Sunday evening was short on many details. Today, James filled many of the holes but leaned strongly towards sympathy with the Venezuelan strongman's decision, even avoiding use of the word "expropriating" until the third paragraph. The AP's whitewashing headline seems to be designed to cause readers to yawn and move on to something else.
What seems to have occurred is that poor Mr. Chavez got stuck in traffic and didn't like it. That's all it takes in Venezuela for a project that has surely been years in the making to vanish -- unless Mr. Impulsive changes his mind. Here are excerpts from James's report:
Chavez orders halt to construction of Caracas mall
President Hugo Chavez says he was heading through downtown Caracas when he was shocked by the sight of a huge, nearly finished shopping mall amid the high-rise offices and apartments.
"They had already built a monster there," Chavez said. "I passed by there just recently and said, 'What is this? My God!'"
So the often-impulsive president told an allied mayor to halt construction and said this prime block of urban real estate should be expropriated. He said the sprawling six-story building might be put to better use as a hospital or university.
The exercise in drive-by socialism illustrates Chavez's tendency to govern from his gut, and to leap in when he thinks other government agencies - in this case city planners - aren't doing their job.
The new Sambil mall was scheduled to open in the La Candelaria district early next year, packed with 273 shops, movie theaters and offices. Chavez complained - with reason, some experts say - that it would add yet more traffic to an area that's already so crowded "not a soul fits."
"Stop it, Mr. Mayor. And we're going to review all of it. And we're going to expropriate that and turn it into a hospital - I don't know - a school, a university," Chavez said during his weekly broadcast on Sunday.
The newly elected mayor of the district, Chavez ally Jorge Rodriguez, told the president he would get the job done, though how remains unclear. Neither he nor Chavez spelled out possible compensation.
(Victor Maldonado, who leads the Caracas Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Services) told reporters the sudden decision to freeze one of Caracas' biggest investments is an arbitrary move that threatens 3,000 jobs and has led to a "rise in uncertainty" among businesspeople.
The rest of James's report includes a bizarre quote from Rodriguez, the area's mayor ("We're going to respect private property"); a swipe at Venezuelans' consumerism; a criticism of the project as ill-conceived from the start; an acknowledgment that converting the building into whatever Dear Leader decides is best will be very expensive; and a quote from a professor worried that actions such as these might affect whether "this revolution is going to be successful."
The success James and AP appear to have achieved is a relative disinterest in his report. A Google News search done at 11:30 PM on "chavez mall sambil" (not entered in quotes) returned 202 stories, a relative handful. Most of them are using today's "construction halted" headline and not yesterday's, which was "Chavez says mall to be expropriated in Venezuela."
Still unexplored, though, is whether Chavez has particular problems with Sambil, which already operates seven malls in the country, or whether this action might mark the beginning of more extensive heavyhandedness in advance of a constitutional referendum that would eliminate presidential term limits coming up on Febrary 15.
The vast majority of US readers, most of whom are of course shoppers themselves, will probably never know what has happened in a story they could especially relate to during the Christmas season.