Friday, May 25, 2007

Burning Out AND Fading Away: The Opposition and RCTV

This is an article, draft of one anyway, that i doubt is going to make any deadlines within the effectiveness timeline. situates the RCTV situation with an analysis of the opposition's developing strategy around it...

interesting trivia before i get into it...last night i was in Altamira, a rather solidly antiChavez neighborhood, visiting friends. At 8, a cacelorazo began in support of RCTV that lasted for about 15-20 minutes. In my neighborhood, less solidly antiChavez but by no means 'rojo rojito,' my housemates inform me that a few people took part. This evening, as i am posting this very post, i heard one feeble pot get banged for about 20 seconds, then nothing, as if to prove my point.

so, without further ado, here's the article (i'll go out for the shinanigans this weekend, so i can promise more pictures in the near future...)

Since the approval of a new constitution in 2000, the newly named Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela has been the site of an unprecedented democratic rebirth. In the process, widely accepted notions of democracy, socialism, and resistance to neoliberalism have been and continue to be rewritten. With the reelection of President Hugo Chávez Frias in December 2006, the development of ‘Bolivarian Socialism’ or ‘21st Century Socialism’ has accelerated, with massive redistributions of wealth and the investment of the country’s ample petrol profits into social programs aimed at making a new model of society, one oriented toward human rather than economic development, possible.

The Bolivarian process, which draws its name from the anti-Imperialist Independence hero Simón Bolívar, has since its inception drawn the ire of the Empire and its representatives among the upper classes. Venezuela’s poor, on the other hand, have proven their enthusiasm for the revolution and its aims on countless occasions. The latest chapter in the struggle between democratic social transformation in Venezuela and the interests of the old order is set to come to a head this weekend, with the ‘closing’ of Caracas-based channel 2, Radio Caracas Television (RCTV). Last December, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez announced that the state would not renew RCTV’s concession, a national television station affiliated with Telemundo, a US-based Spanish-language station owned by, among others, NBC. This weekend, on the 27th of May, RCTV’s time on the public airwaves will officially come to an end, prompting both sides of the debate to prepare for a massive confrontation.

‘Closure’ without Closure

Since last December, the opposition in this country has mobilized in the streets of Caracas and on the international scene, launching an international Public Relations campaign that has captured the hearts of Pope Benedict XVI, former Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar’s People’s Party (and their analogues in the European Union Parliament in alliance with the EU socialist bloc), and various other enemies of the Bolivarian revolution on the world scene. Chief among the claims of the opposition has been that RCTV is being ‘closed,’ that Chávez is closing the door on dissent in Venezuela, and that this incident exposes Chávez for the dictator the opposition has always known him to be.

However, the truth of the matter remains that RCTV is not being ‘closed.’ The station will no longer hold a place on the VHF – or public and governmentally regulated – airwaves. RCTV, which boasts a 53 year history of broadcasting in Venezuela, can and in all reality will, continue to broadcast via its cable analogue available on DirectTV. While it is certainly true that the move will drastically reduce their access to the public, it is also certainly true that the station only has itself to blame for its situation. In the words of a Houston Chronicle editorial from February of this year, “it’s doubtful [RCTV’s] actions would last more than a few minutes with the FCC [in the U.S.].” The station has been fined, sanctioned, and temporarily shut down numerous times throughout its lifetime, the lion’s share of them before Chávez’s presidency. This most recent censure is able to be more permanent only because the station’s 20-year broadcast concession has expired. In such an instance, just as in any other state in the world, the government of said state enjoys the discretion as to determine whether or not the concession is to be renewed. The government’s decision not to renew the concession has been a long time in the making.

A History of Bad Behavior

Among RCTV’s offences include (all before the Chávez era): Tendentious news coverage (1976: station was closed for three days); Sensationalist programming (1980: closed for 36 hours); Airing pornographic scenes (1981: closed for 24 hours); Airing (illegal) advertisements for cigarettes (1989: closed for 24 hours); in 1991 ‘la escuelita’ a segment of the program ‘Radio Rachela’ was suspended. RCTV has been in default for tax payments for three years. In other words, RCTV has a history of obnoxious behavior and lowest-common-denominator productions, a fact that even opposition politicians and bloggers acknowledge.

Transgressions against ‘good taste’ aside, RCTV has been among the junta of television, newspaper, and radio outlets who have been undermining and calling for the ouster – by any means necessary – of democratically-elected president Hugo Chávez since he first took office. In April, 2002, RCTV aired manipulated footage of the Puente Llaguno incident where 20 people were killed and many more injured in the lead up to a failed coup blessed by the United States and orchestrated by the official trade union – the Confederación de Trabajadores de Venezuela (CTV) – and high military officials. RCTV’s behavior both before and during the short-lived coup is exemplary of the private media’s dubious activities throughout the past 10 years in Venezuela. Most notoriously, the footage of the scene at Puente Llaguno aired by RCTV gave the impression that Chávista demonstrators were firing on unarmed opposition protestors, an impression emphasized by the voice-over of a commentator. (The manipulation of footage, now international common knowledge thanks to documentaries such as “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is a point the opposition in Venezuela continues to deny). Once Chávez had been abducted from Miraflores (the presidential palace) and taken to La Orchila, a military installation based off the coast, RCTV – along with all of the other major private television stations – enforced a media blackout around the response to the coup by Caracas’ poorest residents. Rather than reporting that a military coup had taken place, RCTV erroneously claimed Chávez had resigned. When the residents of the city’s barrios and ranchos took to the Capital’s streets demanding his return, RCTV aired reruns of North American cartoons.

Leo Campos, a journalist who worked for RCTV during the time of the coup has described the way management ordered the news staff not to cover the popular responses to the coup. Policy during that April, he has said, was to present to the viewing public in Caracas and across the country a picture of tranquility and normalcy. Images of metropolitan police attacking barrio protests, roadblocks by Chávez supporters, and the emergence of a letter written by Chávez himself denouncing false reports of his resignation were strictly verboten. Campos, who has said of himself: “no soy chavista, pero no soy estúpido (I’m not a chavista, but I’m not stupid),” and numerous other employees of RCTV have come forward since the 2002 coup and exposed the extent to which anti-Chavista editorial policy not only colored news coverage, but actually often created it.

Thus what is perhaps most surprising about this situation is not that RCTV is losing its concession but rather than it is only finally happening now and in a manner so attentive to a preexisting legal process. That is to say, despite the fact that – even in an era of entrenched global neoliberalism – sovereign governments retain control over public airwaves, and despite RCTV’s long history of malicious and illegal behavior, it is not being ‘closed.’ Despite the open antagonism between Chávez, his supporters, and the private media, this ‘closure’ is not taking place under the auspices of presidential decree or vengeful regulation but rather in the simple choice, in the words of one prominent piece of Caracas political street art, ‘to not renew the lies.’

RCTV in Context

The Venezuelan opposition needs a victory. Registration in the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV), which seeks to deepen and democratize the Bolivarian Revolution, surpassed 3 million aspiring militants after just three weeks of open registration in 5 states. The price of oil continues to rise, giving the Chávez government more money to spend on its massively popular public support programs. The opposition mayor of Baruta (a municipality in Southeastern Caracas) Herique Capriles Radonski’s trial for agitation against the Cuban embassy during the 2002 coup is set to begin anew. In short, in nearly every sector of Venezuelan socio-political life, the Bolivarian Revolution is consolidating its position. Meanwhile, the opposition – once ostensibly united in its anti-Chávez zeal – is splintering. Just this week, the directors of Proyecto Venezuela, COPEI, and Primero Justicia announced the initiation of talks aimed at forming an opposition block distinct from that of Manuel Rosales, the former candidate for President. While such political divisions do not diminish the real threat the opposition continues to pose to the Bolivarian process, these schisms push them towards more and more extreme measures.

Aside from the emerging disunity among political parties, the once coherent anti-Chavista bloc of private media outlets is also eroding. When RCTV goes off the public airwaves, Globovisión, which pulls in roughly 6% of the viewing public, will be the last remaining anti-Chavista stalwart. Venevisión, another one of the ‘golpista’ networks has recently changed its tune, softening its position vis-à-vis the government and Televen has brought the program “José Vincent Hoy” a talk show hosted by Chávez’s former Vice President, José Vincent Rangel.

What has emerged as the current strategy of the limping Venezuelan opposition seems to be two-pronged. The first, and most successful front is in the international arena, which quite frankly has always been more perceptive to their misrepresentations and decontextualized claims than the Venezuelan public. The opposition’s claim that RCTV’s ‘closure’ is an attack on freedom of speech and other liberal-democratic values is easily swallowed in countries – such as the United States – where Venezuela has been painted as today’s emerging Gulag Archipelago by allied media outlets such as the New York Times. This strategy has been unsurprisingly successful, with EU parliament as well as the US senate passing resolutions condemning the situation in Venezuela as represented to them by Marcel Granier – RCTV’s outspoken president – and others. It bears mentioning, however, that this support from abroad really does little to harm the Bolivarian Revolution, as it is coming from countries that have already – and in no uncertain terms – established themselves as antagonistic to the means and ends of the Venezuelan government.

The second aspect of the strategy requires some sort of unification of foreign support with a domestic taste for pop culture. That is to say, the oppositions considers RCTV’s popularity to be a much-needed inroad to the process’s base in the poorest sectors of Venezuelan society. They seem to think that the public’s desire for lurid programming and important telenovelas will trump their support of the social transformations the station has attacked since day one. The fallacy at play here, of course, is that the viewing public watches RCTV for its political positions rather than its entertainment content. Otherwise, there would be no reason to believe suitable alternatives couldn’t be found.

For sure, even the Venezuelan opposition – which has really and truly excelled in making the worst possible decisions at the worst possible moments – ought to be able to predict the unlikelihood of such a connection (EU declarations and the residents of Caracas’ sprawling ranchos) or such a decision (‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’ versus Mission Barrio Adentro) in the case of RCTV. They see their strategy’s chances for success as being bolstered by a food crisis in the country which has been developing since the government began regulating the prices in the ‘Cesta Básica Venezolana’ (foodstuffs comprising the common Venezuelan diet). Such a strategy emphasizes, if nothing else, the contempt the Venezuelan opposition holds for the majority of the country’s population. Without the bread and circuses of Chávez and his sycophants, or so the logic goes, the masses will return to their rightful places as the passively downtrodden of the Fourth Republic (allowing, of course for the occasional Caracazo).

This strategy will fail. In terms of food shortages, the opposition’s argument that meat is scarce and expensive due to peasant land seizures and aggressive land reform misses the point that the redistribution of illegitimately held fincas is helping far more poor Venezuelans than the concentration of ownership in a few hands. This of course not to deny that Venezuela is on the cusp of a food crisis. However, this reality has far more to do with the disproportionate dependence on imports and supply side sabotage than state attempts to build food sovereignty through the redistribution of property. What is more, the recent activities on the part of large rural landholders, ranchers, and slaughterhouse owners reported in the nation’s papers have not helped anti-Chavismo’s public appeal.

These crucial miscalculations on the part of the opposition follow a long line of blunders based on a rather deep disdain for the majority of the population. Their ‘reverse bread and circuses logic’ – that the general public is so enamored with RCTV’s roster of scantily clad women and imported telenovelas that they will rise up in arms against the government should they lose access to the opiate of the masses – have been disproved in the final weeks of the station’s VHF career. Demonstrations denouncing the government’s decision have been met with counterdemonstrations of equal size and passion. Former employees of the station have stepped forward to expose the veracity of the government’s justifications for not renewing the concession. In short, the opposition and RCTV’s attempts to present themselves as innocent victims are losing more and more of what little basis they had every day.

Shooting Themselves in the Foot (again)

A United States-sanctioned coup already failed once. The opposition is absolutely bereft of popular support. A series of crucial miscalculations (starting in 2002, extending through the boss’ strike, the recall referendum, and the boycott of 2005 assembly elections) has left them without institutional foothold. This weekend will expose, if nothing else, the extent of the Venezuelan opposition’s desperation. Unfortunately for the opposition, recent events point toward an explosive weekend.

As their legal options continue to fail them, some segments of the opposition have resorted to issuing threats of violent anti-government disturbances should they not get their way. Last Sunday (May 20), Julio Andrés Borges, general director of the opposition party Primero Justicia (PJ) wrote in an opinion column in Últimas Noticias, “In one week it will be the 27th of May. I hope that blood doesn’t come to the street and the government corrects its decision.” The implication, of course, is that the showdown over RCTV, which has seen marches in the capital and a nearly 24-hour propaganda campaign by Globovisión and RCTV, will turn violent unless Chávez backs down.

On Monday (May 21), interior minister Pedro Carreño announced that weekend raids by various police and state officials uncovered three arms caches attached to plots around this weekend’s ‘closure’ of RCTV. Among the weapons discovered throughout the city were pistols, rifles, shotguns, and bulletproof vests as well as stores of ammunition, laptop computers, and mass info-storage devices. In other words, both the public and clandestine fronts of the opposition seem to be spoiling for a fight.

Should the opposition choose ‘the armed path’ this weekend, however, their biggest concern should not be the inevitability of their being crushed by the Venezuelan military. Rather, the crucial blow to the opposition’s position would be the popular reaction to any of their attempts to disrupt public order after RCTV’s ‘closure.’ In a full-page announcement published on Thursday, four urban and campesino organizations (Frente Nacional Campesino Exequiel Zamora, Frente Nacional Comunal Simón Bolívar, Colectivo Alexis Vive, and the Coordinadora Simón Bolívar) made public their ‘contingency plans’ (under the heading ‘Oligarchs Tremble!’) in the eventuality of a violent weekend. Later that day, representatives of the organizations demonstrated in front of the FEDECÁMARAS (the Venezuelan chamber of commerce, widely seen as a symbol of the 2002 coup and of the interests of the oligarchs) to prove their point, spray-painting slogans denouncing the hoarding of basic goods and the opposition’s appeal to foreign intervention in their wake. What is damning about such developments for the opposition is not the threat of ‘popular justice’ nor of fighting a two-fronted insurrection. Rather, what positions such as that of ‘Oligarchs Tremble!’ point to the fact that the opposition’s strategy around RCTV has only succeeded in further diminishing the already miniscule amount of sympathy the majority of Venezuelans hold for them (an almost unimaginable feat in and of itself).

In short, should the opposition ‘go hot’ at the end of RCTV’s VHF career, the only sympathy they will find after their inevitable defeat will come from those they already count among their friends: the US state department and the expatriate oligarchs currently buying property in Miami. Their gamble, aimed at inserting themselves between the government and its impressive base of popular support, may well be among their last.

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