June 1, 2007

Learning to cherish independent institutions

Quico says: Last week, the pro-Chávez Comando Alexis Vives marched onto the Central University campus and trashed the School of Journalism, spray-painting anti-RCTV and pro-government slogans all over the façade and the benches out front.

This week, opposition students held a "protest" that consisted in whitewashing the building, and painting over the graffiti on the benches.

It's a vast, vast, vast right-wing conspiracy. No, seriously, we mean vast!

Quico says: According to Chávez, the only reason he's getting all this flack about closing RCTV is a giant conspiracy against him. "International rightist, extreme-rightist and fascist movements are attacking Venezuela from everywhere — from Europe, the United States, Brasilia," is the way he put it. (You understand by now that he uses "Venezuela" and "me" interchangeably.)

Turns out you only thought the chorus of condemnation he's received this week was due to a diffuse but very strong consensus on this issue. You've been manipulated into thinking that, faced with such a blatant move against free speech, people right around the world can come to similar conclusions without anyone having to coordinate them. But Chávez knows better: all these reactions are being orchestrated by a shadowy international cabal of fascists.

Just how vast is this conspiracy? Really vast. Turns out extreme-rightists and fascists now run:
Fascists! Extreme-rightists the lot of them!

Now, if your first reaction in reading this post was "yes, but," if you can't see how loopy Chavez's defense is, how paranoid and unhinged, if you need someone to explain it to you - that in itself is a pretty good sign that you're a crank.

May 31, 2007

Say wha?

Katy says: Notes from the nonsensical revolution:

- Interior Minister Pedro Carreño says, in a press conference for the ages, that people have a right to protest but that the State has to protect people's rights to circulate and enjoy their private property, because we all know that this a government that has always respected private property (in those rare occasions when it isn't trying to abolish it).

- In the same press briefing, he asked for proof that police forces had used excessive force, and stated that students were led to protest by the "owners" of private universities who are afraid of losing their market share thanks to Chávez's recent announcement to open 24 new universities. Memo to the Minister: we've seen the quality of education in chavista universities. I think private university owners have nothing to fear.

- To top it all off, the Carter Center put out a communiqué expressing concern over freedom of speech and, get this, the danger of self-censorship! But did Carter voice those concerns during his meeting with Chávez and Gustavo Cisneros, you know, the one they had right before Venevisión mysteriously stopped criticizing the government? Hmmmmm...

Es que algunos las tienen cuadradas.

More from Reporters Without Borders

RSF says: Unfortunately, there is no longer any doubt about Chávez's goals: RCTV’s closure was just the prelude to the progressive disappearance of all the opposition press. Media that criticise the government will be snuffed out one by one until only the pro-government media are left.


In other words:

My grandfather's ankle

Quico says: My earliest political memory is of my grandfather's ankle.

I couldn't have been more than 5 or 6. I was playing on the floor in front of him, running a matchbox car across the floor - vrooooom! As I ran it up his leg, I noticed something strange about his ankle. It looked weirdly bumpy, indented, just wrong.

"Grandpa, did you make a booboo on your ankle?"

"Nah," he said nonchalantly, "those are just the marks from the shackles, from when I was in jail."

His answer confused the hell out of me. Partly because the word for shackles in Spanish - grillos - is also the word for grasshoppers, so the image that popped into my mind was of insects gnawing at his ankles in some fetid prison. Mostly, though, what I couldn't put together was what the heck my grandpa had been doing in jail. I was too young to really understand my mom's explanation later that day. In fact, it was years before I was finally able to grasp what those marks meant.

As it turns out, my grandpa was just a high school kid in 1928, when he joined the first wave of student protests against the Gómez dictatorship. Like the rest of the protesters, he was tossed in jail for his trouble, chained to a wall for weeks alongside the likes of Jóvito Villalba, Miguel Otero Silva and Raul Leoni.

It's an experience that marked him, quite literally, for the rest of his life. Even though he didn't end up going into politics, my grandpa never forgot the difference between tyranny and freedom he learned in Puerto Cabello. "Democracy" and "freedom" meant something deeper to him, something more vital than it could ever mean to someone who's only read about democracy in books, or thought about the loss of freedom in the abstract.

I've been thinking a lot about my grandpa's ankle this week. About his sacrifice. About what those shackles did to him. Was it all in vain?

In 1928, it sure must have seemed like it. As every schoolboy knows, the protests of 1928 didn't really weaken the Gómez regime. He crushed the protests easily, eventually exiled the leaders, and remained in power until the day he died. If blogs had been around back then, we would've had to call it a monumental blunder.

And yet, those protests are remembered as a pivotal moment in Venezuela's 20th century history. It was those hapless kids, acting without a real plan, without a real notion of what they were up against, those kids whose efforts must have seemed so pathetic to Gómez as he crushed them, it was those kids who ended up dominating political life in Venezuela for the next half century.

The bonds they made while chained to that wall, the esprit de corps they forged amid a struggle over transcendent values, shaped Venezuela's political future in ways people could scarcely have imagined in 1928.

Something to keep in mind as we see Venezuelan students once again jailed for protesting out of rage. Will they bring down the Chávez government? Of course they won't. But the lessons they're learning this week, the ties they're forging, the values they're affirming...those will stay with them for decades to come.

Today's detainees, tear gassed and harassed, beaten and humiliated, will be our newspaper editors, parliamentarians and ministers over the next thirty, forty, fifty years. When they meet each other, they won't need words to evoke the memory of what they're experiencing this week. And once they're in power, the lessons they're learning right now about freedom of speech, civil rights and the right to protest are lessons they won't forget.

I admire them, I really do. And while I do think that, in the short term, their efforts are doomed, I realize it's not sensible to judge them on that kind of time horizon. More likely, it will be another half century before the deeper consequences of this week's protests have fully worked their way through Venezuela's public life.

The pot calling the kettle blackout

Quico says: Noticiero Digital's editor, Roger Santodomingo, strikes me as an uncommonly lucid observer of our political reality. I took the trouble to translate part of his latest column:
One of the governments main allegations against the private TV stations, particularly RCTV, is that after April 11th, 2002, they didn't broadcast information about the protests Hugo Chávez's supporters staged against Pedro Carmona's de facto regime.

The private media censored themselves, they ran cartoons rather than information about the riots and looting that took the lives of dozens of citizens. Their excuse at the time was that they didn't want to contribute to spreading anarchy and violence, as had happened on February 27th, 1989, when the Caracazo was catalyzed by live broadcasting.

Curiously, the "public service" TV station that has just taken over Channel 2's signal hasn't broadcast any news so far about the protests taking place all over the country against the blow to free expression that was taking RCTV off the air.

But it's not just TVES, none of the state run channels, or the private ones that have lined up behind the government, such as Venevisión, has reflected on their screens what has been happening on the streets.

The blackout - one-sided information or zero information - has become a government policy. To ignore all that isn't convenient is the line handed down to the salaried journalists and parasitic businessman: only pre-approved propaganda is accepted. The media outlets that refuse to follow this order are pressured impudently, through their advertisers. Companies that buy advertising space get called, threatened and blackmailed.

When total control over a news item can't be guaranteed, only state media are accepted by the official sources. For example, tonight (May 30th), after the arbitrary arrest of former deputy and activist Oscar Pérez, of the National Resistance Command, only VTV and TVes reporters were given access to the jail so they could cover it first hand.

Facing this news blackout, the informal media are strengthened. RCTV is broadcasting its newscast, El Observador, over YouTube.

By blacking out the news, a policy ordered directly by Hugo Chávez, whose idea of journalism is closer to the uniformed Granma and the deformed Mario Silva, the President commits another flagrant violation of the constitution he so pompously sold as the most progressive of them all.

May 30, 2007

This is the logo for the cause

Katy says: Or at least the first I've seen.

1,241 editors can't all be wrong...

Quico says: According to Google News, wire service stories about the protests in Venezuela this week have been picked up by 1,241 publications around the world. And that's just in English. This is a story that has pierced through. We're not just talking about the big metropolitan dailies carrying it, we're talking dinky little home town papers, things like:
  • The Journal Gazette and Times-Courier, IL
  • The Kindred Times, UT
  • The Anatolian Times, Turkey
  • The Wyoming News, WY
  • The Timaru Herald, New Zealand
  • B92, Serbia
  • The Dunton Springs Evening Post, CO
  • The White Rock Reviewer, SD
  • Mediafax, Romania
  • The Jordan Falls News, IA
  • Leading The Charge, Australia
  • Dateline Alabama, AL
  • Gulf News, UAE
  • The Nelson Mail, New Zealand
  • The Herald News Daily, ND
  • The Akron Farm Report, NE
  • The Ottawa Recorder, Canada
  • The Manawatu Standard, New Zealand
  • OregonLive.com, OR
  • The Benton Crier, IA
  • Brocktown News, NV
  • The Hinesberg Journal, Canada
  • The Howell Times and Transcript, UT
  • The Prescott Herald, AZ
It's a story that tells itself. Everybody understand shutting down a TV-station.

Fuenteovejuna, señor.

Katy says: Our old friend Pepe sends us this link from Noticiero Digital.

Three hundred students from Central University in Caracas have decided to turn themselves in to the Prosecutor General's Office, in solidarity with the 182 protesters already detained there. That would make 482 people in jail for doing what PSFs in their home countries call "demonstrating," but in ours they call "destabilizing."

(Sorry about the link not working well, either Noticiero Digital is getting too many hits or there's yet another denial-of-service attack.)

As usual...

Quico says: The best piece on RCTV's closure in the English language press is in The Economist.

Katy thought...

Quico says: ...it would be good to turn comments back on for a few days so those of you in Venezuela can write in about what's happening on the ground. Looks hairy.

You know, I never fully bought into Alberto Garrido's portrayal of Chavez as Master Strategist. But the guy does have some sense for tactics. Enough to realize the importance of confronting his enemies where he wants when he wants. He's had plenty of practice over the last eight years, and by now he's pretty good at it. He knows just what he has to do to push our buttons, to provoke us out into a confrontation on his terms.

It's all too easy for him, because his side has leadership and plans ahead and our side has rage in place of a strategy, emotion in place of planning. It's an old script, the one these kids are playing out this week. Understandably and justifiably angry, they're doing exactly what Chávez wants them to do: handing him a pretext to shut down Globovisión and end University Autonomy. When the dust settles, the outcome will be the same it's always been: a few more institutions will have lost their autonomy, and a few more dissidents will have been scapegoated and silenced.

Eight years on, we still haven't put it together: anger is not a plan. Eight years on, we're still strategizing with our liver. Eight years on, Chávez can still play us like a violin.

TVES, worker and parasite...

Quico says: A taste of TVES, the new State run Channel 2, from my inbox...
So I woke up this morning after last night's sob-fest at RCTV to see aerobic tae- bo kick boxing on Channel 2. Like tanned and fake-titted instructors in gym-tights dancing to something that sounded like sped up Daft Punk or one of those cheesy pop-house bands. This went on for some time, interrupted later by some requisite negritos with tambores.

By the time I got to the office there was some kind of show of people doing some kind of snow/ice sailing, it didn't look horribly Venezuelan, though maybe there's a place at the top of Pico Bolivar that's flat enough for that sort of thing. Then we saw several hours of cameras panning across cute schoolchildren, their mouths open with ponderance as they glanced around the room like disoriented refugees. Lost track of things for a while, but when I came back there was some translated movie, I suspected German, about blond girl of maybe 10 and some guy about my age, at some point she drops a bunch of change onto a store counter to buy some alcohol to impress him, later shoots a toy arrow at some woman she doesn't like, then gets behind the wheel of Mr. Robinson's Volvo and threatens to run him over.

I'm sure they'll have Chavez on screen for most of the time over the next couple months, at least as soon as they run out of German socialist movies and National Geographic specials dubbed into Spanish. They've also apparently dredged up a 1970s Argentine soap opera in what appears to be an attempt to pass it off as local content.

Socialism I tell you.
Why does this remind me so much of this old Simpsons clip?

May 29, 2007

Good night, for now

Katy says: It's getting late, and things in Venezuela seem to have calmed down a bit. Tomorrow is sure to bring more unrest, but for now, I leave you with this cool picture I received today.

To the students bravely defending the cause against tyranny, my heartfelt thanks.

A word of caution for my fellow destabilizers

Katy says: As we read the news on the student protests and watch the government's heavy-handed approach to dispersing the crowds, we are reminded of the wave of protests in 2001 and 2002 that culminated in the Carmonazo.

So now is as good a time as any to ask: where is all this leading? Do we have any hope that Chavez will allow RCTV back on the air? The government's repression will surely be bad news for Chavez and his tarnished image overseas, but after almost universal condemnation for the closure, is there anything else to gain in that regard?

I heard an idea that one of the points is to force the Copa América to be held somewhere else, which would be a big embarassment for the dictator, kicking him where it hurts the most (his ego). But will we have the strength to reach that point?

Maybe I'm missing the tactical objective of this "massive destabilization plan." Maybe the answer is obvious. But I think that, after being led into the lion's den far too many times by obscure powers, Venezuelans should keep these questions in their head before going out and serving as target practice for the government's goons.

May 28, 2007

What it's really about

Katy says: As we restlessly digest our confusion, sadness and outrage over the RCTV shutdown, it's easy to forget the big picture - why did Chávez make this move, and why now?

To figure it out, ask yourself this: what does Chávez want more than anything? And, what is the biggest hurdle to achieving it?

What Chávez wants is absolute power, something he's close to but doesn't have yet, at least not by his standards. To get it, Chavez needs indefinite re-election, the assurance that he will never be considered a lame-duck President and that nobody in his circle will rise to prominence as his term nears its limit. And to get that, he'll have to reform the Constitution.

From this point of view, the nature and timing of the RCTV decision make perfect sense.

Chavez wants to reform the Constitution for one reason only: so he can govern until he dies. But in order to do that he has to change the Hard Constitution, and if he wants to do that and keep a semblance of democracy, he needs that reform approved in a referendum.

Since a specific proposal has not been unveiled, it's too soon to poll on whether or not people would vote favorably for a hypothetical reform to allow this. Nevertheless, recent opinion polls show large majorities of Venezuelans do not favor the idea of indefinite re-election. There is a real risk that Chavez could lose a referendum on it, and this is a risk he is not willing to take.

That's the real reason behind the RCTV shutdown - not the coup, not Miguel Angel Rodriguez, not the soap operas, not Granier. Chavez cannot risk having a national, opposition-minded media outlet heading the campaign against indefinite re-election and giving air time to those who oppose it.

With RCTV out of the way and the Constituional Reform shrouded in secrecy, voters in Venezuela will have to make up their minds on the basis of official information, print media and Globovisión (which have little penetration beyond the middle class) and the reporting on Venezuela's remaining TV channels, which can be relied on to mobilize in favor of the proposal.

Already, the European Union's election monitoring mision for last year's election noted the way state assets were openly mobilized in favor of Chávez's re-election and the obscene one-sidedness of campaign coverage on state TV. Well, guess what: in the run-up to the constitutional reform referendum, all mass-market TV will be state TV, or state-dominated TV. Faced with the flood of petrodollars the government lets lose in the run-up to any election, with the abuse of state broadcasting, with the illegal use of state money to fund official campaigns, our last remaining counterweight was a combative private media: now it's gone.

As I write this, I realize it all sounds too simplistic. But I also realize that Venevisión - an erstwhile opposition TV station that has now become the government's broadcaster of choice - had its license renewed for five years only, and that the next presidential election is scheduled to take place five and a half years from now. On those two facts alone, the government's war on private media starts to make more sense.

Put simply...

Quico says: The backstory is surely more complicated than this, but personally I can find nothing to disagree with in this Reporters Without Borders statement:
Reporters Without Borders today called for international condemnation of President Hugo Chávez's decision not to renew the licence of Venezuela's oldest TV station, Radio Caracas Television (RCTV), which was finally forced to stop broadcasting at midnight last night.

"The closure of RCTV, which was founded in 1953, is a serious violation of freedom of expression and a major setback to democracy and pluralism," the press freedom organisation said. "President Chávez has silenced Venezuela's most popular TV station and the only national station to criticise him, and he has violated all legal norms by seizing RCTV's broadcast equipment for the new public TV station that is replacing it."

Reporters Without Borders continued: "The grounds given for not renewing RCTV's licence, including its support, along with other media, for the April 2002 coup attempt, are just pretexts. Other privately-owned TV stations that supported the coup attempt have not suffered the same fate because they subsequently adopted a subservient attitude towards the regime."

Directly or indirectly, President Chávez now controls almost all the broadcast media. RCTV's closures is not, as he would have people believe, a mere administrative measure. It is a political move designed to reinforce his hegemony over the news media.

This attack on media pluralism is just the latest in a long series of press freedom violations in Venezuela that have included attacks on hundreds of journalists in recent years, a "media social responsibility" law that restricts their programming, criminal code amendments increasing the penalties for press offences, publication of a list of journalists who allegedly "sold out to US interests," and verbal threats by Chávez against foreign journalists.

"We appeal to the international community to actively condemn this use of force and to defend what remains of the independent media in Venezuela," Reporters Without Borders added.

Freedom of Propaganda

Quico says: "Chávez has been blessed with great enemies: they're so hard to defend" my friend replies when I express my distaste about RCTV chief Marcel Granier's elevation to the post of lead defender of press freedom. With his two-tone hair and his sub-Dali moustache, the erstwhile dean of Venezuelan anti-politics even looks like a comic book villain.

"Blessed with great enemies." Heh.

"You remember the April crisis?" I say, "the paro? the recall? I was all for the opposition all through that - but come on, man, the private TV channels were absurd! They didn't cover marches, they participated in them. They could have reported them, they could have acted like journalists, but they didn't, they chose not to. They chose to take sides, and that's not what journalists do. So don't you think it's a bit odd that it's this guy, who was giving those 'un-journalists' their marching orders back then, who's become the visible face of the 'save journalism' campaign?"

"But it's not about him," my friend goes on, "it's about the Venezuelan people's right to hear a diversity of views on TV. I mean, I agree with you, but the true reform of the media is simply not on the agenda here. What's being fought is a rearguard action against totalitarianism"

I know he's right. In my head I know it. I know today is marks an ominous milestone in the revolution's descent into authoritarianism. I'm not stupid, I can see these things. But in my gut, well...there's something about the canonization of San Marcel de Quinta Crespo, patron saint of repressed journalists, that I can't sit through with a straight face. And, frankly, I'm sick and tired of having to pretend that it isn't so just to avoid being branded a Chavez enabler.

I'm bitter. I wanted my press martyrs to be shining beacons, admirable, above reproach. I wanted Anna Politkovskaya but, I got Ana Vacarella. I can't help but feel a bit ridiculous mourning a channel that kept on running its 9 p.m. telenovela right up until the very end. I know that's wrong. But that's how I feel.

The RCTV shutdown episode, like every episode of Chávez-engineered hyperpolarization since 1999, has made genuine reflection nearly impossible, closing down once again the space for a critical dialogue about the state of the situation and the situation of the state (como diría Mafalda.) As the political climate heats up, both sides fall back onto their default positions, an automatic, tribal solidarity that treats the acknowledgment of uncomfortable realities as tantamount to treason.

In the opposition, a code of omertà has made it impossible to actually talk about anything the private media might have gotten wrong in the last 8 years. The usual canards about handing propaganda freebies to a totalitarian government are trotted out to squash discussion. The absolute virtue of RCTV's line is treated as axiomatic, beyond the need for evaluation. The sheer absence of introspective insight here is ominous - and it's made more ominous, not less, by the parallel turpitude on the other side.

In the government, only Chávez seems to have the balls to call a spade a spade, to forthrightly accept he's doing this to silence a troublesome outlet for dissidents. Sure, "conspirators" is the way he puts it, but anyone with a feel for Chavista-Spanish translation long ago figured out that when he means "disidentes" he says "conspiradores."

Conatel, on the other hand, tries to keep up the fiction that nothing remarkable is happening here, that all of this is quite routine, a bureaucratic procedure, nothing more. RCTV's license was not renewed, we're told, on aesthetic grounds ("the programming is too vulgar" - and this from the people who bring us La Hojilla!) For Conatel, what we're seeing is not so much censorship as a kind of muscular, applied cultural criticism, a line that brings to mind the provocateurs who justified the 9/11 attacks in terms of architectural criticism.

The two Venezuelas talk past one another, for the Nth time: two streams of bullshit running in parallel. No one puts forward a serious argument. The qualifier, of course, is that they have the tanks and all we have is our keyboards.

I, for one, intend to use mine. For me, the RCTV shut down wasn't really a violation of journalistic freedom, because for most of the last 8 years what RCTV has produced has been propaganda, not journalism. The RCTV shut down has been an abuse of propaganda freedom, which may not sound as noble, but in its own way is just as important to freedom of speech as the other kind.

Propaganda is the key concept here, and we need to understand it unsentimentally, see it for what it is. As Jonathan Chait puts it in The New Republic this month:
The word has a bad odor, but it is not necessarily a bad thing. Propaganda is often true, and it can be deployed on behalf of a worthy cause (say, the fight against Nazism in World War II). Still, propaganda should not be confused with intellectual inquiry. Propagandists do not follow their logic wherever it may lead them; they are not interested in originality. Propaganda is an attempt to marshal arguments in order to create a specific real-world result--to win a political war.
Fox News is propaganda, and The Daily Show is propaganda. France's Liberation and the Wall Street Journal's editorial page are propaganda. Their basic goal is not to inform, it's to convince: and in any normal democracy, that's a normal, natural part of the political conversation a free society has with itself.

It's not often put this way, but the freedom to produce and consume propaganda is a fundamental component of freedom of speech. Because propaganda is just the broadcast version of what those of us who like politics do whenever we go out to a bar. We argue. We say things in the way we figure is most likely to convince the other side. We don't feel bound to present the other side's views in the most flattering light, because our goal isn't to elucidate, it's to convince.

To ban propaganda is to ban the cut-and-thrust of democratic political debate, to drive a stake through the heart of deliberation.

The problem is that Venezuela as a society has lost any sort of insight into the dividing line between propaganda and news. It's not surprising, it's been a long time since we've seen proper jounalism on Venezuelan television screens.
Propaganda is constantly, incessantly passed off as news. The "Chinese Wall" between editorializing and reporting crumbled a long time ago, in both the public and private media. It can be hard to find actual news at all. So we can hardly fault people for failing to realize the difference between them.

Now, for the last eight years we've had precious little reporting, but we've at least had some diversity in the propaganda on offer, a rough pluralist balance of un-news. From now on, though, what we'll be left with now is not "No Propaganda," but outrageously one-sided propaganda, a debate where only one side talks, where the governing party line is showered on people from all sides, all the time, with nothing to balance it.

The reality is that, this morning, outside a few big cities in Venezuela, people waking up and turning up the tube will have no access to any televised content critical of the regime. For all of the private media's faults, it's hard to shake this ominous sense that this really is a rear-guard action against totalitarianism, and we're losing.

May 27, 2007

Is there an Emmy for irony?

Quico says: Check out CNN's package on RCTV. It's a good, hard hitting piece...with one colossal, deliciously suggestive blunder. Notice the footage they show as they explain that Chávez accuses RCTV of golpismo for backing the coup against him in 2002. That's right, they dug up this hoary old clip of a light tank charging up the steps of the Palacio Blanco...from Chávez's coup attempt in 1992!

I guess you gotta cut them some slack: nothing that happened in 2002 produced a Latin American coup image quite as iconic as this one.