It is difficult to overestimate what happened last Thursday at the National Assembly in Caracas. In a discounted revolution that never ceases to amaze us with its cynicism, new heights of power abuse were reached. Let’s review first the events and then explain them and their symbolism.
A chronology of the events
Dissenting students try to march to the National Assembly to bring a petition. In short, they want their civil rights to be guaranteed, including their right to protest, their freedom of information and expression.
The National Assembly refuses to receive them, blocks all its access with the Nazional Guard. A couple of representatives realizing that the house of the people cannot do such a thing decide to go and meet the students at a more neutral ground, sponsored by the catholic church.
The National Assembly, N.A., direction realizing that it had a public relation problem decides to invite the students to visit them for a debate with “Bolivarian” students on Thursday. The initiative is from the N.A. The dissenting students, as we will learn later, were never consulted nor offered to discuss the rules of the “debate”. These rules were that taking turns 5 dissenting students and 5 bolivarian students will present their case to the N.A. Nothing else such as a moderator or an agenda is offered. The “debate” would nothing more than a free for all but taking turns.
The day comes. The dissenting students arrive, all wearing a red shirt above their clothes. Once inside the building (only pro Chavez folks had been invited in the visitor balconies, the dissenters were alone on a bench near the tribune of the N.A.), the direction calls for a cadena. That is, for the duration of the “debate” ALL TV stations and ALL radio stations of Venezuela will have to transmit simultaneously all the proceedings.
Douglas Barrios is the first dissenting student to speak. He reads form a paper a carefully worded statement that lists precisely all the requests of the students. At the end he removes his red shirt as a symbol of independent mind from the red Bolivarian agenda, stating clearly that no Venezuelan should be obliged to wear red to be allowed to speak or to be taken into consideration. The others remove their red shirts too.
The first chavista student speaks. Then comes the turn of Yon Goicochea who simply says that the National Assembly of Venezuela is not a place of debate, that they did not come here to participate in a debate, that they have exercised their right to reply to previous N.A. verbal aggressions and that, their mission accomplished, they were leaving the building.
Under the decomposed attitude of Cilia Flores, the N.A. president, they leave the building, followed by most of the press corps sensing that the outside events were going to be more interesting than whatever would take place inside the N.A. hall. Effectively outside a throng of violent chavistas were waiting. The students had to be escorted into armored police trucks to be taken away of the Venezuelan Capitol as a lynch mob, surrounding all the area, tried to get at them, including such strident supporters of Chavez as Lina Ron. Videos of this shameful moment are abundant, including from one of the student filming from inside the truck as people insulted her and tried to grab her.
While the dissenting students managed to get away (the Guards and the Police did a good job in protecting them), the verbal attack on them inside the N.A. reached a paroxysm. All the Bolivarian students took their turn to speak, anyway, and all outdid themselves in attacks against the departed students. That is, they did not offer much except a well rehearsed Castroist rant and personal attacks on anything that does not think like the ideology in power. The cadena ended at 2:45 PM (it lasted for about two hours). Immediately Globovision restarted its broadcast with all the videos of the student “escape” from the lynch mobs.
The students safely back to the USB campus held a press conference where they explained their reasons not to stay at the N.A., in particular that they did not consider the N.A an adequate place to debate, that they did not request a debate, and that they had not been consulted on a debate nor on how this one would be held. On her side Cilia Flores held a dismal press conference where she went almost hysterical sometimes, picking up silly fights with female journalists.
At 18:03 a new cadena starts, this time led by Chavez himself. It would last until 21:26, that is a total of 3 hours and 23 minutes of simultaneous broadcast all across the country of ALL TV AND RADIO STATIONS. Only people with cable TV (less than 25% of Venezuela’s homes) can escape it by tuning to some foreign network. During all the cadenas time, almost 6 hours on Thursday, private stations lose their advertisement income without any compensation from the state, not even some tax break.
The highlights of the cadena; congratulation by Chavez himself to the Bolivarian students all lined up in the attendance to Chavez; copious insults to the dissenting students and to many opposition activities; step by step “criticism” of Barrios speech with as many allusions as possible as to the unfit nature of his speech; and more, much more in the same perspective. It is to be noted that the insulted students will never be able to exert a right of reply to Chavez in cadena, and even less in front of him. During three hours Chavez insulted a group of people that could not reply, could not protest, and could not defend themselves. Furthermore, Chavez proffered an accusation that normally could even be ground for judicial action against these students by implying that they were paid agents from foreign powers. No proof advanced of course but their integrity duly questioned without them ever benefiting form a public right to reply.
On Friday we learned that the government has launched a frontal attack to discredit the dissenting students, going as low as besmirching their families. But we also learned that most of the Bolivarian “students” are in fact ALSO public employees in positions were they work in communication of governmental propaganda.
Chavista public opinion of course claims victory but all of their actions betray that they know they received a serious Public Relation blow. Opposition is sharply divided into those, like this blogger, who think it was a stunning fit for these students and those who think that they should have remained. This last group in general wishes they had remained in order to hammer as much as possible attacks against Chavez.
Attacks continued Saturday with for example the N.A. assembly announcing that it would only consider the “concrete proposals” of the Bolivarian students (which include no entrance exam to college and the end of university autonomy). The other proposal, although have been listed very concretely in the speech of Barrios will not be examined. Newspaper carry full pages advertisement with the speeches of some of the Bolivarian students, paid by the state.
Explaining the early exit
First, let me come out quite clearly on the side of the students by saying that against incredible odds they managed a brilliant performance and transformed an announced execution into a stunning victory. Staying inside would have been a mistake for several reasons:
1- They were alone. For example no support from friends as the balconies were filled with pro Chavez folks. They would have risked public booing, public lynching by the representatives. They were in unfavorable conditions if any debate were to become acrimonious or were they to be provoked by chavista students.
2- They never asked for a debate. They came to explain in a perfect speech all what they wanted. For them to have stayed inside would have implied redundancy in further speeches. If the “debate” would have been a real debate with follow up and actual exchange it would have made sense to stay, but that was never contemplated by the N.A. organizers. Observing the chavista speeches that followed the exit of the students certainly justifies their exit: no one should be subjected to such opprobrium. It is also important to point out that the dissident students are representatives of the student bodies of their universities: they were elected or named; whereas that was not the case for most, if not all, the bolivarian students. These ones spoke on their own name and it is fair to question their credentials as student representatives, and thus their legitimacy in attending such a debate.
3- Staying inside would have brought back some legitimacy to a more than tarnished National Assembly. This one was elected with only 17% of the Venezuelan voters and gave a body 100% pro Chavez: it might be legal but it is not legitimate. As if this was not enough, early this year it surrendered most of its legislative power to Chavez so this one could emit a long list of law-decrees without parliamentary debate. The public image of the N.A. is of an irrelevant body that just consumes state monies for nothing. The N.A. needed more, infinitely more that debate than the dissenting students. The students were right to remind the country that the N.A. is just a pitiful subservient group of people of no value, no backbone, no character, no personal convictions. In other words, they told the country that the N.A. of Venezuela has ceased to be a place of debate, that true debate can only happen in the streets now.
4- In addition the set up was obviously a trap, including the chavista crowds (hordes?) posted outside. How is it possible that only chavistas can go near the National Assembly of all Venezuelans? How? Had the students stayed inside, countered the other guys arguments, they would have just given more ammunition to the exited rabble to commit aggression at their exit. They had the duty to leave early, to preserve their lives, and to expose the trap the government had tried to set for them.
Explaining Chavez reaction
The big loser Thursday was Chavez. That is why he had to put a 3 hour cadena in the evening. He needed to shut up Globovision commentary and rally his troops.
He needed to shut up Globovision because Globovision is now the only network in Venezuela that would cover extensively the chavista debacle of the day. Thus by starting his cadena at 6 PM he was stopping Globovision at the hour when its ratings go up, when people start getting home from work.
By prolonging the cadena after 8 PM he was cutting Grado 33 which is the editorial show of Globovision. And he was also cutting the 8:30 transmission of CNN through Globovision, just in case CNN would show some of the aggressions of the day.
By having a 3 hour cadena he offered some form of revenge to his bruised troops. He cheered them up and started rolling the ball that it was a victory.
Unfortunately the official excuse for the cadena was a lame inauguration of unfinished student complexes, an excuse that under NO circumstance should have lasted more than half an hour, even for Chavez cadena standards. This was shown pitifully when the vice president himself refused, during a TV hook up to Carabobo, to show some classrooms because, I presume, the lights were not yet working and still the thing was being inaugurated in great fanfare.
Some new truisms that should be mentioned and repeated constantly
There are some issues that I think should be repeated even if mentioned or alluded to them through this post.
Among the many attacks that chavismo has hurled since Thursday we notice this pearl: it is supposed to be embarrassing that Barrios had to read form a paper. That paper must prove that they were manipulated, told what to say by some obscure foreign interests (read: Bush spending his nights writing memos to the Venezuelan opposition?). Well, chavismo would think that way. Chavez has been repeating the same speech for 8 years with just an increasing and belligerent and radical tone. Of course he does not need a piece of paper in front of him. And of course his followers do not need a paper in front of them: they just need to repeat the rehashed consigns, they are not speaking for a group, they are speaking in favor of the Supremo. Their words after all do not count, or will stop counting as soon as Chavez changes his mind.
On the other hand, as it is the case for any serious group, for any serious organization, for any serious political candidate at great transcendental moments, you read form a piece of paper because you need to express your points clearly, precisely AND completely. Nothing must be forgotten, even the exact timing at which the red shirts should be taken off. More than anything else perhaps, this attack from chavismo shows how irresponsible chavismo is, how dependent on Chavez they are, how alien of free thought, freedom of choice, intellectual depth they are.
The meaning of debate is quite clear. You need the right place. It was not the right place as the N.A of Venezuela has lost all credibility and has not held any debate on any subject since the 2005 election. You need clear rules, maybe not fair but at least clear. These, as they were, came from above and the parties were not consulted. You need a moderator agreed by both parties. The N.A. took that role without deserving it, without even consulting. You should be able to chose part of the audience. Only pro Chavez folks were in the audience. You should be respected, EVEN if you chose to leave early. We all saw that respect is a word that has been purged from chavismo vocabulary.
And if there is to be a debate you need to be prepared for it. It is normal that the dissident students seek help to prepare for the debate, or even for the statement they will present if they decide to limit themselves to a statement. Thus if they asked teachers, or even advertising agencies to emit a polished document, what is the problem? Does that diminish the message? Or does anyone think for an instant that chavismo did not prepare the people it sent? Where were they prepared? In Cuba? By Cubans? At Miraflores? By chavista media people? Why would their training be more justified than any training that the dissident students are accused of having received, without any proof of it by the way?
Thursday June 7 will be remembered as a day where Chavez abused his authority on the media as he had never dare to do before. That is, not only he shut RCTV two weeks ago, but now he cannot even allow Globovision to speak up to report chavismo abuses. That private networks suffer the economical consequences of a 6 hour cadena in a day, at the two highest rating moments of noon and evening, does not matter for him. All private networks and radio stations lost as much, if not much more for some of them, of their revenue for the day. Meanwhile they must keep paying their personnel and the expense of their relays as they must transmit the speech of Chavez (they are not allowed to shut up their transmitters to save energy, for example).
Thursday Chavez has shown that he was disposed to take in hand personally, actively, the censorship of the country media. And in many ways:
1- He is the only one allowed to accuse whomever he wants, in the terms he wants without the aggressed parties benefiting for a brief right to reply in a cadena of their own, and even less any right to sue him in court. For 6 hours on Thursday all Venezuelan hertzian spectrum carried attacks on opposition figures, on independent minded students, on foreign countries, etc…
2- Not only he closed RCTV, because he is the one that decided to close it, without a trial, without a public review of service, without the right to RCTV to present its defense, and even less to offer ways to mend its work assuming that a real accusation were to come, but now he has made it plain his threat to shut down Globovision and to steal airtime as much as he wants. With the notable addition that now the N.A. has established the precedent to call for cadena when it wants for as long as it wants. It is to be expected the other public powers pro Chavez will start getting the idea to make their own cadena whenever they need.
The implications are easy for anyone to infer. Chavez will go after freedom of information and expression. He even will go after justice redress. The Thursday show leaves no doubt on that. For more than 6 hours the country had only access to information through Internet or Cable TV. And after these 6 hours only one network, whose reach in the country is not even 50% of homes, was the only one able to present the other side of the official version of the news preached by Chavez and his acolytes for 6 hours. No state TV, no neutered private network mentioned what I just detailed above, or if they did so they did it briefly and probably more on the Chavez side.
It is just a matter of time before Globovision is closed. Soon attacks on independent newspapers will follow. And Internet cannot be far behind.
But worse, the way the government was willing to violate the civil rights of the student delegates show clearly to the country and to the world that civil rights have ceased to mean anything in the mind of chavismo officials. The only thing that stops them is a certain respect for international opinion and the desperate desire to hold to the democratic fig leaf that they use to hide their true fascist nature. A fig leaf which is by the way quite eaten with worms.
A personal note
I have tried to report as objectively as possible what I saw this week. It has been hard. For once I need to separate my own opinions from the story, even if cannot help but let the story be colored by the disgust I experienced about this whole charade.
For me, that Thursday a new line has been crossed by chavismo. Be it out of despair because its polls are falling, be it for a deliberate strategy to finish off its opposition, but the line has been crossed.
A line was crossed when the students were summoned by the National Assembly when this one offended them in the first place.
A line was crossed when the chavista hordes were waiting outside.
A line was crossed when the National Assembly and its chavista “students” lost any composure and restraint once the dissident students left.
A line was crossed when Chavez blocked deliberately, without reason, all the info that the country wanted to see, to hear.
It is a fascinating exercise to see how this is covered by chavista media, be it from the Internet blogs, to the official news agencies, through the different spokespersons ending with Chavez himself, who might be one of the few who really understood the moment. Perhaps worse of all were the words of some of the “students” of Chavez who were regurgitating slogans, and who seemed only to willing to trade freedom for a few material advantages. Pathetic.
Pathetic and worrisome because from the chavista reaction it is clear that there is no more dialogue possible with that side, at least that side that controls the level of powers or who actively participates in handling these levers such as the “bolivarian” students. Any dialogue left is to discuss terms of transition, not for a country building consensus. It is chavismo country or it is not.
What was hair rising is the sensation we got from all of these chavistas who only wanted to insult the dissident students; none of them could hide their contempt for them, if not their direct hatred. Stunning! In fact, from the whole chavista lot, the ones that behaved the best were some of the bolivarian students who at least had the decency to shake hands with the departing dissidents.
How can dialogue ever start? How is Chavez going to build up the country with the students he brought to defend him and his pseudo revolution? When have sycophantic students built a country? When have sycophantic National Assemblies promoted civil rights? When has a ruler be good for a country when he thinks of himself first, and only?
We are in trouble, in big trouble.