THE MEDIA IN VENEZUELA (part 3)
Spilling ink, on paper or electronically
Sunday 12, October 2003
Today is the commemoration of Columbus landfall on the Americas. In Venezuela this holiday used to be called “Dia de la Raza” (“day of the race”). The name was chosen for its symbolism, that we were all the result of the mix of three races, whatever the sufferings endured by the diverse groups. Last year the glorious Bolivarian Revolution decided to change the name to “day of indigenous resistance”. By this fell-swoop of cheap Orwellian talk the revolution dismissed the suffering of the African slaves, and denigrated the real history of Venezuela for a propagandist tale that had little to do with the truth (1). Indeed, this is a perfect example of the poverty of ideas that have made Chavez fail in his attempts at finding some significant support in Venezuela intellectual circles, and the media where they write.
THE PRESS UNDER CHAVEZ
The indisputable Chavez charisma did play some with the press in the halcyon days of the 1998 campaign. Venezuelan newspapers do not endorse directly candidates the ways that the US papers do a few days before an election, but that does not stop them to hint strongly at who is the horse they are betting on. The only major paper that has continuously opposed Chavez since 1992 is El Universal (2). El Nacional was much less critical during the campaign to the point that many readers complained. In fact when Chavez won, one of his first protocol visits was to the editorial offices of El Nacional. The wife of the general editor owner of the paper was even named to a cabinet position although her tenure lasted a few weeks. In the provinces many papers actually supported Chavez. How come now perhaps more than 90% of the papers oppose Chavez?
One explanation is that many of the press journalists have experienced the same style of aggressions that the TV reporters have suffered. Unfortunately for Chavez the explanation goes well beyond simple aggressions.
The first striking fact is that no major paper directly support Chavez administration. The only one that is very moderately supportive is the tabloid format Ultimas Noticias (3) from Caracas, probably due to its working class readership which in part still supports Chavez. Or probably because the owners were involved in a long heritage dispute that was settled with the “good offices” of the administration, as idle gossip would have it. Outside Caracas the very few regional papers that support Chavez probably started doing so as much for sympathy for the cause as to local antipathies. For example Yaracuy Al Dia, one of my two local papers, has been engaged in protracted battles with the governor, Eduardo Lapi, a first hour opponent of Chavez. The “enemies of my enemies are my potential friends” might have had something to do in the leniency that Yaracuy Al Dia has for some inexcusable failures of the Chavez administration.
However, the real big mystery is how come Chavez has not been able to establish a newspaper that people would be willing to pay for? Certainly, he has not been afraid to pay for TV coverage. Certainly, efforts were made to create some kind of printed media (5). How come nothing resulted? Clues come from reading the latest chavista venture, Diario VEA, a daily that started printing a few weeks ago. Reading its pages one will find that most news are taken from dispatches of Venpres, the governmental news agency. A few AFP appear on occasion, and some Prensa Latina dispatches cover whatever happens in Latin America. The only advertisers are public institutions. Not surprisingly almost no private companies seem to pay for add space although one would suspect that chavistas still represent some market share. The letter to the editor section is full of praise. Quickly the reader realizes that Diario VEA is just a political tract sheet.
The answer of the mystery is that simply Chavez has not been able to lure durably any of the heavy weights of the Venezuelan intellectual set. The only ones that write favorable articles are the minor figures of pre 1998, and the Chavez system does not seem to have given them the wings of inspiration to become the bards the revolution so desperately needs. Without good and reputable writers that people like to follow, no pamphlet can flourish into a real newspaper.
THE DIFFICULT RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN CHAVEZ AND INTELLECTUALS
The political and social reasons that brought Chavez to office are the stuff that supposedly drive intellectuals to produce some of their best work. Materialism, corruption, decline of institutions, need for renovation and what not are the elements of what op-ed pages are made. Some intellectuals indeed flirted with Chavez at first since he represented the best hope for a real change. Yet, his coup ringleader past and his military origin were never very reassuring and thus intellectuals never really embraced him. When the discussion of the constitution came, it was clear to see for all that the constitutional assembly was full of non entities put there to avail the master’s plan. Some intellectuals decided to start criticizing openly what was looking increasingly like a wasted opportunity to write a serviceable document for our future.
The Bolivarian Constitution was voted and finally the center of discussion shifted to the actual words of Chavez. Slowly but surely the incoherence of Chavez message, his undigested ideas gleaned from his hodgepodge readings while in jail after 1992 that were offered as the new truth to live by became intolerable to a class used to free criticism and some minimum of intellectual coherence. When Chavez authoritarian tendencies started becoming obvious, many intellectuals decided for frontal opposition. What are left now for Chavez are a few mediocre apologists, and the foreign press. Not enough to build a serious printed vehicle within Venezuela.
HELP FROM OUTSIDE?
At least Chavez can claim some success overseas. It is easy to understand why so many papers still support Chavez today, even if less than a year ago. Chavez has been able to sell himself well benefiting from the prejudices of racial and economical inequities held by the Western intelligentsia as to their idea of what drives South America. For them, Chavez is almost too good to be true.
In Venezuela we can see the difference in language when Chavez addresses us or an international stage. The language, the wording is not the same. But the foreign press is not going to spend time or money to hear the constant rants of Chavez on TV. They maintain the legend that Chavez, in spite of soon 5 years in office, is a victim of powerful economical interests that somehow manage to manipulate the million of people that hit the sidewalks regularly to protest against the regime. Chavez is the darling from a few folks form each side of the Atlantic. The Guardian or Le Monde Diplomatique are European samples. In the US it is more at the level of individual journalists like the ineffable Juan Forero, writing from Colombia for the New York Times or the CEPR free lancer Mark Weisbrot for Knight-Ridder. These people seem to write from afar, likely from reports from their chavista friends that they try to make palatable. In all cases what is striking for Venezuelan readers are the glaring factual errors, with the crucial and even unforgivable omissions that one looks for in vain in their articles. They certainly do not seem to get their news from the BBC or even CNN, even though this last one is far from being a paragon of perceptiveness (5).
At any rate, this type of press is regularly cited by Chavez as how the Venezuelan press should be. If some liberal and leftist writers are being fooled by Chavez, it is heartening to see that some writers with impeccable progressive credentials are not (6). Maybe these ones do listen to the BBC and actually follow Venezuelan news rather than hearsay.
VIDEO WARS AND INTERNET ALTERNATIVES
With the failure to create a favorable press, in spite of guiding success stories of the propaganda genre like Cuba’s Granma, chavistas have turned their attention to videos and the Internet. The latest weapon is an Irish video that has been getting several awards. This video, “The Revolution will not be televised”, pretends to illustrate how the media “complot” tried to help along the demise of Chavez in April 11, and how his fervent supporters single-handedly restored him. That might be so, but as a piece of objective journalism this cinéma verité is quite a con job. Perhaps the most crucial moment in April 11, when the Army Chief of Staff Lucas Rincon announced that Chavez had resigned, is not shown in the video. Yet this announcement still makes it on occasion to the news. And its star is now the Minister of the Interior… How could these people forget to include the very single element of April 11 that drove most of what happened in April 12 and 13 (8)? That does not stop some Venezuelan embassies to give away this video to whoever wants it. “The propaganda will be televised”.
The Internet is also the brave new world of chavistas. In Spanish some sites have already a distinguished career and even made the news, such as Aporrea (9). English sites have been slower to start, but this is currently being remedied as flashy and expensive all English sites have appeared since the December strike. The information in these sites, like Diario VEA, seem to come from the same limited sources, but at least the presentation is acceptable and clearly oriented to foreign consumption and propaganda. All is fair in war. There is still one place where chavistas have failed to produce anything significant: the blog world. So far there is no English blog favoring Chavez, and no serious blog in Spanish whereas these abounds that oppose Chavez, vehemently, or analytically like this one tries to do.
CHAVEZ IN THE NEWS, ALONE
One thing is certain, Chavez makes a lot of ink run, paper or electronic ink for that matter. However, the only one in the chavista camp that is able to score an occasional success is Chavez himself. After almost 5 years it is amazing that Chavez is still the only one on occasion that can defend effectively, if not honestly, his work and actions. When the history of these years will be written I am certain that long studies will be devoted on Chavez failure, or inability, at attracting local heavy weights for his cause. Perhaps the foreign observers could meditate on that.
(1) Chavez has been courting all sorts of “indigenista” (native) movements across South America, in particular in Bolivia. Perhaps this renaming of October 12 is more within that plan than for our own reality. If this were true, then Chavez cynicism is all the worse.
(2) Its opposition to Chavez has not stopped El Universal to host for years regular opinion articles from, of all people, Adan Chavez, brother of the president and probably the only person he trusts. Other Chavez supporters have been able to see their words printed frequently, next to some of the most vociferous critics of Chavez. El Universal is perhaps a model of balance in spite of its editorial line, although lately there are less chavistas writing in it. Any reason?
(3) As mentioned in an earlier installment, links to the web pages of the cited papers and people can be found in Venezuela Today.
(4) The first effort was Correo del Presidente which was distributed free during the campaign for the constitutional convention. However gossip has that after a while people would not pick it up, even free… The paper folded soon after.
(5) CNN run into trouble in April 11 2002 when it helped break the signal blockade that Chavez decreed while the march against Miraflores was shot at. Then it reported first on April 13 early that the Carmona coup was in trouble. Each time CNN managed to be seen as a partial party. Since then the Venezuelan opposition has distrusted the objectivity of CNN to the point that I witnessed at one January 2003 rally the CNN correspondent, Criskaut, booed off stage by the attendance! I did try to report this to CNN but I never received anything back. As far as I know, chavistas do not trust CNN anymore than the opposition, and the Iraq coverage has not helped. CNN in Venezuela has a big image problem amongst the people, though of course many politicians cannot resist a mic, be it from CNN.
(6) Elizabeth Burgos, born in Venezuela and living in France, is one of the best examples of an internationally reputed writer with an indisputable leftist past describing Chavez as just another authoritarian. Her latest review of a Castro biography is a must read!
(7) “The Revolution will not be televised”, in addition of its glaring omissions, has been analyzed for its incoherences. These range from shadows on the streets that do not match the time announced by the narrator to people that could not have been present when claimed. A hack work? The fact is that at this time no answers have come from the journalists or their sponsors to some serious claims made to them.
(8) Aporrea is a very interesting site that sometimes outflanks Chavez on the left by criticizing some of its supporters. It is perhaps the site that has the best “authentic” feel since it reads on occasion as a multi handed blog.