June 19, 2009

You've got to know when to hold'em and when to fold'em

Juan Cristóbal says: In the last few months, the government has ratcheted up the pressure against the only opposition TV station left in Venezuela, the small all-news outlet Globovisión. Chavismo is going all out, charging the company and its executives with everything from tax evasion to psychological war to environmental crimes (on account of a few head of stuffed moose hanging in the walls of the station's owner), not to mention a relentless propaganda campaign on state media against the station.

It's not hard to piece together that the outcome of this whole charade is Globovisión's shut down, and soon. Today we even learned that the Supreme Tribunal decided, against the Constitution, that the government could impose prior restraint (a.k.a. censorship) whenever it wants to.

So in light of all this, it's fair to ask: is it all worth it?

When you think about it, something doesn't fit. The government has all the power to shut Globovisión down. It has had it for a long time. And yet, they're still broadcasting. Why?

Inside sources suggest elements in the government are open to some sort of cohabitation arrangement. Chávez's furious tone in ordering, on national TV, a harder line against the station hints at his frustration: his orders aren't getting followed, because they're meeting resistance from some of the less suicidal elements in the administration.

People like Diosdado and Jesse Chacón know full well that shutting down Venezuela's last independent station could carry tremendous political costs. The benefits, on the other hand, are obviously limited. Globovisión's audience is tiny, overwhelmingly urban, largely cable-or-satellite-TV subscribing, resolutely middle class, and rabidly antichavista to begin with. So it's not like the station costs Chávez any swing votes as it is: Chuo Torrealba's heroic efforts notwithstanding, Globovisión no sube cerro.

In light of this, maybe Globovisión editor Alberto Ravell can save some of the jobs his station provides and keep an important source of independent information for Venezuelans alive if he gave a few of his most shrill anchors the boot.

Perhaps he should give himself the boot.

Envision this scenario: Alberto Ravell comes out and says that their editorial line is wrong and that they are going to tone it down. He says he is resigning to make way for a more impartial editorial voice, that he is laying off some of the shrillest voices (Adiós, Ciudadano?) in the channel and that he is hiring more unbiased reporters and anchors. Imagine a new editor coming in and saying that, for the sake of balance, they will hire (gulp!) a chavista anchor.

The Maria Alejandra Lopezes of the world would, of course, go apoplectic. But the government may end up backing down. Sure, some of the radicals will continue to huff and puff, but is it entirely out of the realm of possibility to imagine them saying something like "well, we'll continue to monitor them and see if they live up to their promise of balance" ?

I believe that, in terms of costs and benefits, it's better to have a moderate outlet where to voice our ideas than to have none at all. And let's face it, it's not like the shrill tone is convincing anyone out there that isn't already convinced. Hell, it may even be good for their ratings.

I'm no media insider, so I don't even know if compromise is at all possible. I have been paying attention, though, and I haven't heard anyone on either side seriously exploring this possibility.

I know I'm not the right person to be writing this post. I haven't watched Globovisión for some time now, and I've never been a big fan. But I recognize the importance of Globovisión's right to exist.

I don't watch Venevisión, a channel that chose to water itself down for the sake of survival. I'm not suggesting Globovisión become Venevisión or, God forbid, the government-propaganda sewer that is VTV.

But if there is room for compromise, it should be explored. Venezuela is better off with some independent media than without it, even if said media is a milder, blander version of Globovisión.

June 18, 2009


...to everyone who came last night. You reminded me of why this blog's biggest asset is its readers. And if you missed it, well...what happens in 360, stays in 360, 'mafraid.

June 17, 2009


Juan Cristóbal says: - Thousands of citizens march on highways, demanding the elites in power recognize popular will. Students protest against a fraudulent election, the power of a petro-state hanging in the balance. Armed government militias roam the cities freely, attacking civic-minded protesters with total impunity. The streets of the capital stained with the blood of pro-democracy activists.

Pardon me for stating the obvious, but Venezuelans have seen this movie before. Hell, we've lived it. And there's no happy ending.

What will happen in Iran? Is the Islamic Republic really hanging in the balance? What lessons can we learn from the Venezuelan experience?

Sadly, if anything, Venezuela's experience does not provide much hope for Iran's Mousavi backers. I'm no Iran expert, but judging by what we've gone through, this slow kabuki dance will be long on drama and short on substance. We learned long ago that not to underestimate a petro-dictatorship's ability to ignore what happens on the streets. Marcha no mata mullah, chamo, y Twitter no mata dictadura. Just ask the Burmese monks.

First off, the facts. The government claims Ahmadinejad won in a landslide. The opposition, as well as many foreign journalists and "experts," believed the election was going to be much closer, with reformist Mousavi gaining significant momentum.

But with very few reliable pre-election polls, the only fact out there is the scarcity of facts. Skim the Iran-related articles in the website fivethirtyeight.com and you'll see that (gasp!) there is already a paper out there "showing" there was fraud by applying la bendita Benford's Law. What's the term in farsi for "here we go again"?

I don't really know where the truth lies. The marches in favor of reform have been impressive, but so were Manuel Rosales' marches before the December 2006 Presidential election, which Chávez won in a Mahmoud-sized margin.

It's easy to forget Iran is a relatively poor petro-state, and we all know what that means: great power (and popularity) for the incumbent, even more so if he's a populist. We also know that there are no checks and balances, and that Ahmadinejad and his status-quo-lovin' posse are the types of fellas that will stop at nothing to maintain their grip on power.

In fact, a provocative article on Politico.com argues that it's very likely that Ahmadinejad won the election, that the thousands of middle class Iranian students are not representative of the majority of Iran's population, and that we should all get over it and move on. The article alleges that the current perception in the West - that Mousavi was robbed - is a product of shallow understanding of Iranian politics and demographics. In other words, Iran-watchers better get their heads out of their escuálido asses, 'cause Iran ain't Chacao.

So while the election was, to paraphrase Christopher Hitchens, a sham, and the Islamic Republic is not a democracy by any meaningful standard, it may also be true that Ahmadinejad's victory reflects the will of the people. In that scenario, is it healthy to harbor hope that the current events will result in a dramatic shift in power? And what tools do the green masses have at their disposal to effect change?

Just like in Venezuela, what happened in Iran could be a combination of fraud and Ahmadinejad being the legitimate winner. Faced with Mousavi's surge, it is perfectly reasonable for the government to tweak the vote in order to give it a more comfortable margin of victory. If that is the case, this lends legitimacy to both camps' arguments.

Whatever happens in Iran, it's undeniable that the opposition has shown a force not seen in thirty years, and this could sow the seeds for the future demise of the Islamic Republic. In that scenario, the medium-term effects of the protests may be more important than the likely short-term effects.

In that context, there are at least three lessons that Iran holds for us. One is the advantage of having a visible, courageous and, most of all, free leader. If it were not for Mr. Mousavi being free and at large, it's hard to imagine the current movement going as far as it has.

Another lesson is the importance of participating, even when elections have little chance of bringing change about. Had Mr. Mousavi and his backers abstained, they would have no legitimate argument to be out in the streets, and their ability to pressure and make change happen would be even lower than it is now.

The other lesson is in the power of alternative media as a way of overcoming official censorship. As we see the last independent TV station in Venezuela gasping for air, it's easy to think of its demise as the end of the possibility of regime change.

But the world is changing, and old media is not the only media out there. The role of alternative media sites such as Facebook or Twitter or (hell, why not) blogs in the current crisis should be carefully analyzed, specially by Venezuela's hapless opposition.

They have yet to take advantage of new networks and XXI-st Century forms of communication. They better learn quickly. 'Cause pretty soon, they may be the only weapons they have.

(Hats off to the great Lucía for providing some of the insights in this article)

Labor's Love Lost

Quico says: My trip here's been extremely hectic, so I apologize for the sparse posting. Every day, I seem to add one or two topics to my list of issues-the-media-really-isn't-covering-nearly-as-well-as-it-should. And I notice that a lot of those have to do with labor issues.

More and more, labor activists find themselves facing criminal charges over work disputes with state owned firms. The charge is typically some variation on the theme of "boycott" and "sabotage"; words whose meanings have been extended to delirious new extremes. The problem is compounded by the fact that the state refuses to conduct further collective bargaining talks with its own unions, and refuses to implement the few it does complete (e.g., the Caracas Metro.)

The real irony here is that, from an organized labor point of view, dealing with the bloodsucking fascist private sector is now immeasurably preferable to dealing with the revolutionary workers' state. Private companies can't get away with a tenth of the shit state firms pull without some Inspectoría del Trabajo flunkie getting up their nose. But work for an SOE and you get no collective bargaining rights and, como si fuera poco, threats of jail time if you do something about it.

Go figure.

June 15, 2009

Chavista Hopes Die Hard

Quico says: Last year, these posters blatantly politicizing Venezuela's olympic team made a bit of a splash in the opposition media - especially after the government's brazen stunt catastrophically backfired when "the sporting revolution" failed to bring home a single gold medal from Beijing.

So much for that, I thought. One more petty official idiocy come, gone and forgotten...

Except that, almost one year on, the posters are still up! Bizarrely, they're plastered all over Caracas Metro stations even now. And we're not talking one or two posters the apparatchiks forgot to bring down, mind you: there're dozens of them, in high visibility places, throughout the Metro network.

What's the thinking here? Is the idea that, with just that extra little bit of encouragement, these guys still have a shot at some of those gold medals? What gives!?

...then again, all of the advertising in the Metro these days is political propaganda. As in, literally 100% of it. So, realistically, the alternative to these preposterous Beijing posters is just more mindless boosterism for the world's most expensive Cable Car.