Shakuntala Rao is Professor of Communication at State University of New York, Plattsburgh, USA. She was a visiting lecturer at Universidad Central de Venezuela in Caracas and at La Universidad del Zulia in Maracaibo in November 2008.
The cabbie, driving me into Maracaibo, the second-largest city in Venezuela and a place where one finds some of the largest oil refineries in the world, says sarcastically: “Esto no es revolucion, esto es robolucion” (“This is no revolution, this is revolution of thieves”).
He is referring to President Hugo Chavez’s anti-American, anti-imperialist policy of “revolutionary socialism.” Such sentiments are not uncommon on the streets of Maracaibo, the capital city in the state of Zulia, where Chavez remains highly unpopular and has lost successive elections.
Since Chavez came to power in 1999, in the name of socialism, he has nationalized Venezuela’s oil industry, overhauled taxation, and imposed dramatic state-sanctioned education and land reforms.
He also has been no advocate of free and independent journalism.
Chavez’s real popularity lies in the crowded streets of Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, about 320 miles east of Maracaibo.
Fernando Rodriguez, associate editor of Tal Cual, a leading left-leaning opposition newspaper in Caracas, and a prominent and vocal critic of Chavez’s regime, invited me to his villa in the hills at the outskirts of the city where, he believed, we could safely talk about journalism in Venezuela.
Rodriguez, the former director of Cinematica Nacional de Venezuela (Venezuelan national film archives), a post from which he was fired when Chavez took office, is a soft spoken man in his 60s. We sit in his library surrounded by books, contemporary Mexican Art, and Spanish furniture.
“It has been a very strange socialist revolution,” says Rodriguez, “There are no students or intellectuals involved in this revolution.” Calling it the coalition of the “perverted left”,
Rodriguez admits that Chavez’s relationship with the press has been a different one from other Latin American leaders. While he acknowledges that “newspapers have enjoyed significant liberties” in Venezuela, he harshly critiques Chavez attempts to control the broadcast media.
There are five government-controlled television networks in Venezuela and about 80% of Venezuelans get their news and information from TV. “We are losing the war of free press on television,” laments Rodriguez, who recognizes the popularity of Chavez as a TV personality.
Venezuela has become a country governed largely through television. The most emphatic exercise of power resides in the weekly show hosted by Chavez where he engages with the masses, announces policies, muses on his political philosophy, sings traditional songs, and signals the next step in his self-described revolution.
In many ways, Chavez wants to bypass journalists all together. His show cleverly titled, Alo Presidente (“Hello, President”) is broadcast every Sunday on all state-owned television and radio networks and simulcast on the web. The show places Chavez at a different location each episode; sometimes viewers can see Chavez perched on a hilltop and sometimes sitting next to an oilrig. The show can last five to eight hours in which citizens call Chavez and chat with him directly. He is personable, often referring to callers endearingly as abuela (grandma) or hermano (brother). Studio guests are hand-picked, most often comprised of members of his own political party, United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).
The few independent journalists who dare to appear on the show are castigated. His rant could include disparaging remarks about everyone – including his own cabinet members and party loyalists. But most of his sharpest criticisms are reserved for the American government. The show has included ‘fake’ news conferences where pro-Chavez journalists appear and ask friendly questions.
In a country where TV and radio stations and newspapers have strong political alliances, Chavez has been playing a game of cat-and-mouse with opposition media.
Thousands of students and media activists took to the streets of Caracas in 2007 when Chavez shut down and revoked the broadcast license of one of the largest opposition TV network, RCTV or Radio Caracas Television (RCTV Internacional is now available only via cable and on satellite). Chavez said he was democratizing the airwaves by turning the network’s signal over to public use, accused the network of helping to incite a failed coup, and “poisoning” Venezuelans with programming that promoted capitalism.
Chavez has also attacked the Maracaibo based private channel, Globovision TV, accusing it of broadcasting information of attempts on his life.
According to Rodriguez, there are hundreds of anti-Chavez journalists who remain in jail and people are routinely “disqualified” from running for public office on flimsy charges of corruption. “It remains to be seen whether Chavez will become a dictator if he continues to lose power” says Rodriguez.
Rodriguez and others are wary of comments like the one Chavez made leading to the November election in the state of Carabobo. He said: “If you allow the oligarchy to return to governing, maybe I will end up taking my tanks from the armored brigade to defend the revolutionary government.”
The regional elections held in November 2008 were a partial success for Chavez. While his party won 17 of the 22 gubernatorial seats, his candidates lost governorships in two of the largest states, Zulia and Merida, and for the first time since he became President, the mayor of Caracas is from the opposition party.
Following the elections, Chavez appeared on his Sunday morning show and asked the people of Venezuela to amend the existing constitution so that term limits for Presidency could be eliminated and he could run for office again in 2012, the year his term is officially set to expire. The success of the socialist revolution, he said, depended on him being the long-term President of Venezuela.
Tal Cual’s editorial the next day harshly criticized Chavez’s attempt to become “President for life” and called him “delirantes” (“delusional”).
As I left Rodriguez’s home after a dinner of arepas and empanadas, Rodriguez said distantly, “I have hope for Venezuela’s future and for a free press.”