The sounds of car horns, salsa music, children in playgrounds, barking dogs and occasional gun shots rise out of Catia, one of the largest slums in Latin America. Catia is a sea of multilevel, tin-roof shacks that cling to the mountains around Caracas, Venezuela. Uncollected garbage rots in the streets and tangled wires pirating electricity weave from house to house. Sporadically rising out of this neighborhood are dilapidated concrete apartment buildings, with laundry flapping in the windows like feeble flags.
Much of the support for President Hugo Chávez, who was elected in 1998, comes from neighborhoods like Catia. Since taking office, Chávez has used the nation’s oil wealth to finance programs in free education, dental and health clinics, land and housing reform, government subsidized supermarkets and hundreds of business cooperatives. In Venezuela, where 80 percent of the population live below the poverty line, these programs have had an enormous impact.
Partly inspired by the momentum the government’s political process has generated across the country, Radio Rebelde (or Rebel Radio) set up shop in 2002 in a collection of buildings which are home to a small hospital, a cafeteria and a giant garage turned into a refugee camp for hundreds of families whose homes were destroyed in one of the many mudslides that demolish entire hillside communities each year.
When I entered the radio station, a group of men and women were sitting around drinking coffee, talking about an upcoming radio show. They immediately welcomed me and offered me a cup of coffee. Among them was Jesús Arteaga, the unsalaried general coordinator of Radio Rebelde, who earns his living by cooking in El Comedor Libre, a free community cafeteria.
“When Radio Rebelde started,” Arteaga said, “an assembly was held with members of the community to develop a way for the neighborhood to participate. Now we have programs which deal with local history, health and natural medicine. Some people do radio novellas that have to do with educating people about social issues, drugs and violence. News reporters talk about the local news and there are programs on political opinion, ecology, child care, religion, cooking and much more. We put all kinds of music on the radio as well—rap, Venezuelan music, U.S. folk music, salsa, reggae, tango and so on.”
“The radio isn’t an end; it is a means to create community, a way to create a social network,” he continued. “People always stop by to drink a cup of coffee, converse – it’s a social group. Anyone can come in here and ask to do a program. They just have to take a class about how the radio works, and then write a proposal about their show. We have dozens of programs.”
The radio is horizontally organized among members, like a cooperative. As Arteaga explained, “When a big decision needs to be made regarding how the radio works, there is an assembly that all of the program producers come to, and everyone has an equal say. We want all decisions to be made through consensus. If we vote, it is because we can’t decide any other way.”
Like Radio Rebelde, the 10 other community radios in Caracas receive roughly 25 percent or less of their funding from the government, with the rest coming from advertisements and other sources. “We believe our economic independence gives us freedom from institutions like the government, and it is very important that we don’t have to answer to anyone,” Arteaga said.
In Venezuela, most newspapers, TV and radio stations are in the hands of wealthy opponents of the Chávez government. The most notorious of these media moguls is the owner of Venevision, Gustavo Cisneros, the Latin American version of Fox ’s Rupert Murdoch.
Opposition media issue a constant stream of criticisms and slander campaigns against Chávez. This media monopoly played an important role in the April 2002 coup against Chávez when radio and TV stations refused to report on the massive pro-Chávez uprising during the coup and framed Chávez supporters for violent acts they did not commit. In Venezuela, as in many other countries, media are used as a political and economic weapon of misinformation and propaganda. Community radio stations in Venezuela are localized responses to this threat. Previous governments allowed only government-friendly commercial radio. Since Chávez took office, grassroots media initiatives have been sprouting up all over the country.
When speaking of the media monopoly in Venezuela, Arteaga said, ”The mainstream press—they aren’t a means of communication, they’re businesses of communication. This isn’t just a problem of manipulation—the information that they transmit is simply not true. It is altered to fit their political and economic point of view. … The businesses of communication want to implement a culture, they want to erase memory, they want us to become global consumers. They want us to know who Britney Spears is but not know that our own neighbor is a singer, not to know our own local values and histories. We want people to know global culture, but also our own culture, our own sovereignty.”
Oppenents of Chávez, both in Venezuela and in the United States, often compare Chávez and Venezuela to Fidel Castro and Cuba, especially when it comes to freedom of speech. Arteaga, who has visited Cuba, was adamant that Radio Rebelde and other community radios did not have to answer to the government or water down their criticisms in order to continue to operate and receive their small amount of funding from the Chávez administration. “This will be a Venezuelan revolution, not a Cuban revolution. We want to copy the good things from Cuba, and not the bad. This revolution copies formulas and experiences but it also invents new things. As Chávez says, this is a new socialism, a socialism that works with capitalism. We don’t want to look like China, Cuba or Russia. We are Venezuelans. … Chávez has been elected eight times and the percentage of people that vote in Venezuela is much higher than the percentage of voters in the U.S. – then who is more democratic?”