January 25, 2003

The opposite of freedom

It sounds a bit melodramatic, I know, but in Spanish the post of Human Rights Ombudsman is translated as Defensor del Pueblo - literally "defender of the people." Switch just a couple of letters around and you end up with Defensor del Puesto – Defender of his Post. Sure, it’s a silly pun, but still, it gets some smiles. Mostly it's fun because "Defensor del Puesto" is a far more accurate description of what our Human Rights Ombudsman, Germán Mundaraín, actually does, given his craven toadying towards the president and his obvious fear of doing anything that might anger him and undermine his position.

And you want to hear what's alarming?

Pretty soon, using that pun on the radio or on television is going to be against the law here.

Say "defensor del puesto" in front of a microphone and you'll face fines worth tens of thousands of dollars. The station you're on will risk losing its broadcast license. The pun is clearly disrespectful to our honorable Ombudsman, and under Chávez’s soon-to-be-approved Media Contents Law you’re just not allowed to say such things on the air.

Now, another thing that hasn’t made me any friends is my criticism of Venezuela’s private media – which long ago decided that political activism is much more fun than, y’know, actually reporting. Of course, I decided that too, but when I did, I realized the only honest course of action was to stop working as a reporter. The Venezuelan TV networks, on the other hand, continue to pretend to produce journalism even though it's clear that what they're all about is putting out as much material damaging to the government as they can.

Of course, the government has become so thuggish that making it look bad on TV is not particularly challenging. The proliferation of amateur videos showing chavista activists attacking opposition gatherings, often shooting guns into opposition crowds, is the most striking example. Those videos are for real, as are the reams of self-destructive presidential statements, the burping generals, the footage of soldiers beating on opposition activsts, or any of the long list of moronic own-goals the government has been scoring in plain view of the TV cameras. You don't need some sort of sophisticated media dirty tricks lab to make the government look thuggish on TV, as the chavistas would have it. No, you just have to put a camera in front of them and hit record.

Obviously the constant negative coverage is a problem for the government, and they've decided enough is enough. The government’s moving against the TV and radio stations in characteristically brutish style, with a a Media Content Law that looks like something straight out of the 1930s.

The bill bans broadcasting contents that “promote, condone or incite disrespect for the legitimate authorities and institutions, such as: members of the National Assembly, President of the Republic, Vicepresident, ministers, Supreme Tribunal Magistrates, Attorney General, Ombudsman, Comptroller General, CNE and Military authorities.”

Zo-wee! They sure didn’t leave anyone out, did they?!

It kills me that some first-world lefties still defend the Chávez government. Wake up, people: these people want to make it illegal for anyone to criticize them on the air! That's now characterized as a “very grave infraction” within the Contents' Law. Other new infractions include promoting, condoning or inciting either war, altering public order, committing crimes or doing anything against the "security of the nation." No doubt they'll gift us a friendly board of military men to decide just what does and what does not imperil the security of the nation, or what constitutes promoting disrespect against the Comptroller General, or what counts as incietement to public disorder. And they'll call the people on that board anything you can think of other than "censors," but that's exactly what they'll be.

How is it that Americans and Europeans who would have a triple-conniption at any initiative back home that was one fiftieth as dangerous to freedom of speech as this still sympathize with Chávez?

Under the bill, violating any of these new rules will justify a punitive 48 hour shutdown of the TV or radio station involved. Two such closures within 3 years are grounds for the final suspension of the broadcaster’s concession, effectively shutting them down for good. How long could it take until that starts happening?

It’s perfectly obvious that Chávez doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the ethics of journalism – you only have to spend 10 minutes watching state TV to understand that. What he wants is complete impunity, he wants to be able to give his underlings any orders at all without the whole world hearing about it. He can't do that while there's an independent media out there covering him, much less if that media is committed to shining a spotlight on every little abuse of power he perpetrates.

In other words, the days of Authoritarianism Lite are at an end. Any debate on the fine points of journalistic ethics and deontology wither into indifference in the face of this autocratic onslaught. The government wants the private broadcasters shut down not because of how often they lie, but because of how often they tell the truth.

The international community must issue an emphatic rejection to this authoritarian lunacy. They're really going too far now.

January 21, 2003

How to slide from political crisis to civil war without really trying
How the chavistas learned to love their guns

It's a tricky subject to write about, mostly because the opposition has been so irresponsible in talking about it. Listen to the strike leaders speak, and you'd think we're in Argentina in 1977, if not in Russia circa 1951. One of Carlos Ortega's favorite ways to start a sentence is "this totalitarian regime has..." That's absurd. Actually, it's worse than absurd: it's an unconscionable insult against the tens of millions of people who have been imprisoned, tortured and killed under real totalitarian regimes in the last hundred years. And that's something I refuse to do.

However, no matter how irresponsible strike leaders have been in characterizing the Chávez government, No matter how grotesquely exagerated their claims may be, that doesn't make it any less true that violence is on the rise in Venezuela. And fast, alarmingly fast.

Anyone who's followed my writing knows I'm pretty well covered against charges of alarmism here. The most puzzling thing about the first few years of the Chávez administration was not how much violence it employed, but how little. I've made that point again and again, both in print and informally, and it sure hasn't made me any friends. I've been attacked as a "cryptochavista" for saying so, doubtlessly it's landed me on opposition radicals' lists of the not-fully-reliable.

That, in itself, is a clear illustration of the infernal levels of intolerance that have gripped this country. As far as many people in the opposition are concerned, saying anything that might in any way reflect favorably on the government is close to heresy. And opposition radicals could always rebut my claim with all kinds of stories of intimidation, harrassment, baton beatings, rubber pelleting, tear gassing and even sporadic shooting to try to paint Chávez's as a kind of mobster regime.

Of course, I don't dispute that violence of that sort took place, and indeed it continues to take place. Some of my friends have been among the targets. What I mean when is that the mass-scale, indiscriminate, use of murderous violence to achieve political ends remained oddly absent from the mix.

I say "oddly" because everything else we knew about the regime suggested it should have had no compunctions about using violence - the theatrical militarism, the cult-of-personality, the autocratic intolerance, the use of threats in place of arguments, the endless chatter about revolutionary this and revolutionary that, the demonization of opponents, the entire ideological structure of chavismo seemed like a complex web of justifications for violence. Yet when the rubber hit the road, when the time came to actually act on that ideological combo-pack, chavistas seemed weirdly bashful.

What's alarming, though, is that little by little they're getting over it.

You can see it happening in Venezuela these days. The process is gradual, yes, it doesn't happen all at once. But you can actually see it happening in front of your eyes now, on your TV screen. It's unmistakable. And it's spooky as hell.

When chavistas first turned their guns on opposition protesters, back on April 11th, the country was so uniformly stunned that Chávez was actually toppled for 48 hours there in response. It was just inconceivable to us back then that one Venezuelan could shoot another over something so fleeting and banal as a political disagreement. These days, it's become almost routine. It barely elicits outrage anymore, just a grim shake of the head and a knot in the pit of your stomach.

And how could we be surprised at this point? Ever since since August 14th, when the Supreme Tribunal ruled that there had been no military rebellion on April 11th, groups of chavistas have been using guns on us more and more often. Especially since the start of 2003, the uptick in chavista violence is unmistakable. Attacks have happened all over the country, from Margarita to Punto Fijo, from big cities like Caracas and Valencia to tiny little villages like Socopó, in Barinas State, Carayaca and forgotten little hamlets in Guayana. This cannot be a coincidence; it's absurd to think that chavistas all over the country suddenly all decided to start attacking opposition gatherings at the same time. This is part of a plan.

(And I know I sound like a crazed opposition radical when I write that, and I hate to sound like those people, but the evidence is no longer ambiguous here.)

The gunmen have been fully identified several times now by stunningly brave amateur cameramen. The private TV stations - you know, the ones Chávez wants shut down (I wonder why?) - play the videos again and again. But the government never acts against these people. The only gunman now in detention is Joao de Gouveia, who wound up in jail merely because he broke the 11th commandment of the chavista shooter: if you're shooting in an opposition-controlled area, then for chrissake don't get caught be a municipal cop.

Yet even by the standards of this gradual routinization of violence, yesterday's shooting spree against the opposition in Charallave was especially troubling. On several levels. First off, because the opposition wasn't even ambushed, as in so many other occassions, by government supporters waiting at the end of their march path. No, this time, the gunmen were literally delivered to the march's starting point, opening fire from the roofs of speeding jeeps as a huge crowd of all ages and genders was getting ready to start marching. (Again, one very gutsy home video enthusiast has the footage to prove it.)

So there was no question of "clashing crowds" here, or "policemen trying to keep the groups apart" or any of the standard repertoir of obfuscation and smoke-screening the government usually employs to keep their denials plausible. None of that. Just a large crowd of people "armed only with flags and whistles" as the cliché goes, suddenly and randomly attacked for no reason at all other than being opposed to the autocrat.

When you peel away all of the nonsense and the visceral outrage and you just stare that situation straight in the face, what word comes to mind? And I am mindful of the way the term has been abused for political gain over the last 17 months, but when I look at what happened in Charallave yesterday I can think of only one word to describe it: terrorism.

And state terrorism, at that.

It's not just the incredible cowardice of the attack, its openness, its shamelessness. Perhaps even worse is the way the chavista mayor of Charallave more or less claimed responsibility for the attacks, in a statement that can't be that far off from what Hezbollah issues after shooting up some Israeli settlers. After proudly announcing that Charallave is | chavista territory,| mayor Marisela Mendoza said she hoped "it won't even occur to the opposition to try to march here again," apparently not fully aware that she was coming perilously close to confessing to being an accessory to murder. Because, oh yes, did I forget to mention that? Among the dozens of wounded there was one guy who never made it out of that march.

But then, in Venezuela, that barely counts as news these days.

The fear, the very widespread fear, is that we're only starting to see the top few inches of the tip of a distant iceberg here. I don't think there's any doubt anymore that the government has armed many, many of its civilian supporters, trained them, and is now working on getting them used to shooting at us when the order comes without thinking twice. That charming Mayor Mendoza there makes it achingly clear that some of them no longer feel the need to go through the motions of covering up their tracks. It's a fantastically dangerous situation.

It's just a fantastically dangerous situation.