Sunday, June 3, 2007

Summary on Venezuela - RCTV

Caracas, 3 June 2007
By Enrique ter Horst
The cancellation of RCTV’s license is proving to be Chávez‚ most costly political mistake since his first election to the Presidency eight years ago. International condemnation, including the European Parliament and the Brazilian and US Senates, has been strong and unanimous, with the exception of Cuba, as videos of the large and growing student demonstrations dissolved with tear gas and pellets are shown around the world.
The nightly banging of casseroles protesting Chávez‚ decision is now also loudly heard in most working-class neighborhoods of Caracas and the interior. The disappearance of RCTV appears to have led to the sudden and increasingly generalized realization that the regime is now moving from words to deeds, and that it is fast becoming a dictatorship.
Insult was added to injury by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice’s arbitrary decision “temporarily” impounding RCTV’s transmission infrastructure (24 hours before the new state TV station TVes initiated its transmissions), in disregard of the well established expropriation procedure, the clearest sign yet of the TSJ’s complete subservience to the Executive.
The Dean and Directors of the Faculty of Law of the Central University published on 31 May a declaration in the national press stating that the legal protection of private property in Venezuela had ceased to exist.
The student protests that started on Monday 28th have, by all accounts, been spontaneous, and they have carefully avoided any association with opposition political parties and politicians. One “politico” who attempted to speak at the first rally on Monday was unceremoniously requested to leave the speakers platform. The only politician who addressed the protesters this week has been Leopoldo López, the mayor of Chacao, where the rally was taking place.
Two of the spokesmen of the movement, Jon Goicochea, a fourth year law student at the UCAB Catholic University, and Stalin Gonzalez, the President of the federation of student centers of the UCV, the Central University, have stressed that the protest movement is not part of the opposition, just students from all social classes. See their website at
RCTV, particularly the President of its holding company, Marcel Granier, had carried out in the week before the shut-down a campaign highlighting the discriminatory character of the decision and Chávez‚ very public vindictiveness, clearly showing the political motivation of the decision.
The last day of transmission was a very emotional, even schmaltzy affair that went down very well with the public at large, not only with the usual soap opera audience.
Granier’s courageous and statesmanlike performances vastly improved his image of a ruthless operator, with a 50% approval rate in the last Hinterlaces tracking poll covering the week after the closure.
Intimidation of the media has been a trait of this government ever since it came to power 8 years ago. The two year old Radio and Television Social Responsibility Law gives 4th tier public officials broad discretionary power to fine and close media that deviate from very strict programming constraints (punitive fines and taxes have already been levied against the main TV stations), and media offices have suffered in the last 8 years some 130 attacks by government controlled hoodlums, with two attempts to burn down RCTV headquarters in the center of Caracas.
Reporters working for media considered unfriendly to the Government have been barred from official events, and those covering opposition marches have been tear-gassed and shot at. 10 have been killed on these and other occasions, and 215 wounded in the same 8 years. Self-censorship is increasing, also in parts of the printed media that until recently had investigated delicate subjects and published its findings fully.
Pages 54 to 58 of the last annual report of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, provide an update on the year 2006. The closure of RCTV is but the latest and most visible of a stream of announcements, declarations and events since Chavez‚ reelection six months ago preparing the ground for the establishment of a controlled society ensuring Chávez‚ indefinite hold on power. This includes the creation of the Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela, reforming the Constitution to establish a centralized State and consecrating the indefinite reelection of the President, transforming the Armed Forces into an instrument of the revolution, and attaining what former Communications Minister Izarra himself called the "hegemony of the media".
The government now owns or controls the vast majority of TV stations, radio stations, and newspapers.
The government’s failure to deliver a better standard of living has, however, also become more evident. Public security has taken a sharp turn for the worse, and the mismanagement of the economy is starting to take its toll. Inflation has taken the elevator as fiscal discipline has been replaced by political priorities, and the scarcity of food staples appears to have become chronic as demand fueled by high oil prices has exploded while investment in production, scared off by Chávez‚ radical discourse, has fallen to a trickle.
The poor have lost their relative food security as the effectiveness of the subsidized Mercal network has been undermined by corruption. All of the above is happening at a time when Chávez is critically vulnerable: his announced five-engine strategy towards the Socialism of the XXIst Century has been explained and initiated, but the transition is encountering stiff opposition: this is still a consumer-oriented market economy and an open society strongly attached to its freedom of expression and its liberal education system; the announced reform of the Constitution has been postponed to next year.
Yesterday he cited Gramsci again: „the old system has difficulty dying, and the new one has trouble being born”. However, his next announced objective is stripping the universities of their academic autonomy and independent governance, an explosive subject that is not foreign to the present turbulence.
His MVR has never been able to win an election in any of the main autonomous universities.It is too early to conclude that the RCTV shut-down has been the catalyzer of a broad based movement that will force Chávez to either change course or lose power. However, as the decision is squarely attributed to the President personally, he is also the sole target of the sentiment of cold outrage cutting across all social classes, a sentiment that has settled in, possibly to stay, kept alive by the inability to tune in to ones‚ favorite soap opera, but also by insecurity, scarcity and high food prices.
According to Oscar Schemel of Hinterlaces, the only polling outfit with a long established network of focus groups in the poorest neighborhoods, his tracking exercise carried out last week shows that Chávez‚ support has fallen to 36% (from 63% on election day), and 70% now believe that private property is threatened. 70% also agree with the peaceful protests and want them to continue. Fully 60% find Chávez to be an arbitrary and authoritarian President and feel threatened by him, and fully 83% oppose the shut-down.
Schemel had accurately predicted the presidential election two days before it was held. At this time Chávez no longer has the support of the majority of Venezuelans. Furthermore, shutting down RCTV might have inflicted an irreparable blow to Chávez‚ strategy of polarizing the poor against those better off and banking on their support to win all elections. The question arises if the RCTV issue and the brutal manner in which he handled it has broken the magic bond that existed between him and the impoverished majority, and if the distinction the poor had always made between the President and his very incompetent and corrupt governments will survive this deep disappointment, or if as of now all problems will be blamed on him alone.
Much will depend on how Chávez responds, but it seems that it will not be possible to put humpty together again. The cumulative effect of his many mistakes, his half-baked dogmatism and the critical stage reached by his radical project push him to move forward.
Yesterday he again said that “this revolution has come to stay”. Most observers believe that a phase of more open and aggressive repression is about to start, an impression also strongly supported by his enraged statement last Monday that he would not hesitate to call on the poor to “come down from the hills” to stop the oligarchy from toppling him, as well as by his statement yesterday that it was not necessary to wait for a license to lapse in order to close a media outlet, a clear reference to small Globovision, the last TV station that openly opposes his regime.
Many observers believe that the beginning of the end has started. Some believe that the agony is likely to be a long and painful one, but they could be wrong.

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