Four young people sit around a large table, writing furiously amid piles of notes, cans of soda, and scrunched up papers. They could be kids doing their homework or studying for exams. But these young women from the shantytowns, aged between 17 and 22 years, are preparing for their hour-long program, “Public Power,” on air in ten minutes on community radio station Radio Perola, 92.3FM, in the Caracas parish of Caricuao.
Caricuao is one of the outer western parishes of Caracas. As the subway train from the center of Caracas approaches the parish, we pass by precarious ranchos, or flimsy tin and board houses, nestled in the sides of the looming hills and large project-like buildings with bars across the windows. Radio Perola is located on the ground floor of one of these “projects” or popular blocks, known as Canagua. The broadcasting studio is a small room, painted bright yellow and covered with posters from the social justice movement and community radios. On one large corner table there is a mixer, microphone and computer, and at a round table in the center there are several mikes and chairs.
Like other community radio stations in Venezuela, Radio Perola began as a clandestine station nearly nine years ago, and activists have fought for it to be legally authorized by the state. Under the hip-hop inspired slogan, “Maximum Respect!,” community journalists at Radio Perola are creating spaces for new voices, such as those of the young women, to be heard.
The young women divide their program “Public Power,” into distinct segments. These include an invited guest to speak about a specific topic relevant to the community, a news segment, a roundtable discussion about a particular current event, and then a segment called, “Community Realities.” During this final segment, the women debate with each other, as well as with listeners, who call in or send text messages via their cell phones. Today the young women are addressing the theme, “Living in the Barrio.”
“A barrio is not just hills full of stairways, the barrio is the community,” says Lilibeth Marcano, a 20 year-old member of the collective, who opens the discussion during this segment of the program. “I live in a barrio, Santa Cruz de Las Adjuntas. It’s not like they’ve always told us, that if you live in a barrio you don’t have a future, that if you live in a barrio you’re nobody. It’s not like that.”
Young people, especially those from the barrios, are realizing that they do have a future and they can play important roles in their communities. All of the four young women from the “Public Power” collective say that they were inspired to become community journalists following the hijacking of information by the private media during the right-wing coup d’état against leftist President Hugo Chávez in April 2002.
One member of the collective, Gladys Romero, was 14 years old at the time of the coup. She recalls that, “There was a lot of misinformation, they took the alternative media off the air, and I as a student, as a young person, felt the need to promote the real information to inform the community about what was happening in the country.”
The private media has accumulated a large degree of power since the late seventies, due to the growing deregulation and commercialization of media in Venezuela. In 1979, the Venezuelan government sold Channel 5, a state-owned channel, to the private sector. Through the eighties and nineties, successive governments continued the expansion of concessions to media corporations, leading to the centralization of the media in a small number of conglomerates. Private television at a national level has been monopolized by the Cisneros group (Venevisión) and the 1BC group of Phelps-Granier (Radio Caracas Televisión). Out of 44 regional television networks, nearly all are linked by chain to private networks Venevisión, Radio Caracas Televisión, Televen, and Globovision. This small group of corporations also control radio-electric spaces and the national press.
Since Chávez was elected president in 1998, and especially in the tense days of the oil strikes by business sectors in December 2001 and during the lead-up to the coup in April 2002, this powerful private media has run a fierce campaign to discredit him. A few hours after Chávez was removed from office on April 11, 2002, opposition spokesperson Napoleón Bravo came on the air and falsely broadcast that Chávez had resigned. While opposition leaders were taking over the presidential palace and dissolving democratic institutions, the private media was running its regular broadcast of cooking shows, soap operas, and cartoons. Members of the community were deprived of access to information, as the government-owned television station, Channel 8, and several community radio and television stations were taken off the air.
During this time, it was mainly the alternative print media that was able to get the message out to the people about what was happening. According to Roberto, a worker at the Caracas Municipal Press, activists came to the press and labored to produce 100,000 copies of a bulletin, informing people about what was happening. Radio Fe y Alegría also came back on the air and began to make announcements about the coup. Through the bulletins, alternative radio, and the exchange of text messages through cell phones, people were able to pass on the news of the coup and come out onto the streets in massive demonstrations that would put Chávez back into power.
At the time of the coup, the alternative and community media broke through the silence and misinformation of the private media. The passing of information from mouth to mouth was a revival of Radio Bemba, an age-old tradition of gossip and communication in Caribbean countries, that has begun utilizing electronic technology such as radio to multiply messages.
Since Chávez was reinstated as President on April 13, 2002, two days after the coup, there has been an explosion of community radio stations. Activists across the country have sought to establish local control over the information reaching their communities. While in 2002, there were 13 licensed community radio stations nationally, as of June 2005, there are 170. In addition to these 170 legally recognized and funded stations, there have emerged over 300 unsanctioned community radio stations. These are created and operated by a range of local groups, including indigenous people in the Amazonian south of Venezuela, peasants in the Andean regions, Afro-Venezuelans in the coastal north of the country, and residents of the barrios in the major urban centers.
Technological advances have made radio broadcasting easy. For example, the community radio station Un Nuevo Día, located in a very poor barrio in the hills above the old highway out of Caracas, began in the bedroom of one of the women residents. The community journalists put a borrowed mixer, a cd player, and a microphone on the woman’s dresser. They transmitted through a small antenna. Invited guests would sit on the woman’s bed. Basic, accessible technology has allowed people in shantytowns and poor communities across the country the possibility to operate small-scale stations.
But community radio activists have had to fight a hard battle with the government to have their stations legalized. After Chávez was elected in 1998, community media activists began to raise issues of the right to communication. This led to the passing of a new law in 2000, entitled, “Regulation of Community Radio and Television.” This law gave communities the right to set up a station, but in order to gain authorization, or habilitación, the National Commission of Telecommunications (CONATEL) proposed that the stations meet requirements in four fields: social, legal, technical, and economic.
Carlos Carles, a journalist with Radio Perola, was involved in the process of drafting the authorization procedures. With his signature baseball cap, baggy clothing, and goofy grin, he looks like just another one of the chamos, or kids, at Radio Perola. But in several meetings with bureaucrats, Carles emerged as a key leader of the community media movement. In contrast to the bureaucrats, he put forth a strong, community based vision of what validates an alternative radio station. “They proposed techniques of demonstrating statistical data. Against this, we proposed local knowledge, oral narrative, historical memory, and the everyday work of the community,” said Carles. “As a result of this difference, we entered into a major debate, and we completely rejected the legal component of the proposal made by the Chávez government.”
Media activists were able to have their views incorporated into the authorization process. Nevertheless, the process remains heavily biased against poor community stations with few resources. During my visit to the CONATEL offices, in the spacious middle class suburb of Las Mercedes, I was shown a seventy page instructional guide that must be completed by community stations who attempt to obtain authorization.
Given the difficulties of complying with CONATEL’s regulations, community media activists decided to create a National Association of Alternative and Community Media, or ANMCLA. Carlos Lugo, one of the founders of ANMCLA and a community journalist with the station Radio Negro Primero in Pinto Salinas, sees the organization as based on the principle of the right to communication. “The community can themselves authorize a station and when the community recognizes the station, it is legal. There is no such thing as an illegal station – everyone has the right to communication.”
Ironically, the private media vilifies the community radio stations as propaganda vehicles of the government. An article published in the private daily, El Universal, on 26 June, 2005, refers to the community radio stations as “radio-electronic media of the state,” which are “employed for propaganda and political proselytism.” The writer laments what he sees as the lack of quality and cultural homogeneity of the community stations, and their bias towards the Chávez government.
But community radio stations have sought to retain their autonomy from the state, which is apparent not only in their struggles with state bureaucrats to ensure authorization, but in their willingness to criticize the Chávez government on important issues. In March 2005, activists of ANMCLA came together with social organizations and indigenous groups to protest the plan of the government to increase the extraction of coal in the oil-rich state of Zulia. The protesters pointed out that the plans would increase water contamination and health risks for the mostly indigenous population of the region who depend on scarce water supplies. They argued that the proposal violates the Kyoto Agreement and several articles of the Bolivarian Constitution that guarantee a clean and safe environment, and protection of indigenous resources. Although the outcome is still uncertain, community media activists have shown their willingness to criticize the government when community interests are at stake.
One of the crucial bases of autonomy for the radio stations is financing. The stations receive a limited amount of financing from the state. For those stations who are authorized, CONATEL or other state institutions such as the Ministry of Information (MINCI) might give direct financing for purchase of equipment or infrastructure. There is also some state publicity in community radio, for which the stations receive a small payment from the relevant institution.
However, what keeps the community stations on the air are the contributions of small businesses in the neighborhood. The state may give a one time contribution of 1 million bolivares ($US 470). But it is the regular monthly payments of one hundred thousand bolivares ($US 47) from the auto repair shop or one hundred and fifty thousand bolivares ($US 71) from the local bakery that maintain the activities of the stations in the long term. In this sense, community radio stations have become part of a vibrant informal economy in the barrios that exists at the margins of the formal economy.
“The idea is not that we should be community media sustained by the state, but rather we have the capacity to be self-sustaining,” said Carles. “Because if they give you money and they give you your daily bread, they begin to ask, why are you doing this, why are you doing that? We prefer autonomy in what we do.”
The community media gives voice to a range of groups and members of the community. There are talk shows, educational programs, cultural shows, sports segments, local history programs, children’s shows, cooking shows, and a variety of music programs, including salsa, bolero, hip-hop, rock, and llanero or country music. There are also social and political programs, which attempt to make visible certain issues such as race. Afro-Venezuelan radio journalist, Madera, has a program on Radio Negro Primero, which he says is “For black men and women.” These kinds of programs do not have space within the state-run media, and certainly have never been a possibility in the private media.
Community media broadcasts are a stark contrast to the stock fare of reality tv shows, soap operas, and game shows continually churned out by the private media. This latter programming nurtures a culture of consumerism that has grown along with globalization. Middle class youth compare expensive watches and brand name sneakers in the walkways of the prestigious Centro Sambil shopping mall in the eastern zone of Chacao. Wealthy parents hire companies to supply arcade video games to entertain their kids at children’s parties. Meanwhile, increasing numbers of barrio youth in the west of Caracas are creating their own forms of leisure that reflect much more closely the new community activism that has become a part of their lives.
With a shy smile, Gladys, the young student from Radio Perola, says that in the current political context, youth should not be so pitiyanqui, a derogatory slang term used to describe those who imitate Americans.
“With this revolution, we the young people are beginning to mature, and we are beginning to see the world from another point of view,” says Gladys. “I think that we are responsible people, we know where we’re going and we know that the future is in our hands.” And with this statement, Gladys packs her school books into her bag, and walks off giggling, arm in arm with one of her schoolmates.
Sujatha Fernandes is a Wilson Cotsen fellow in the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts at Princeton University. She is currently working on a book, entitled, “In the Spirit of Negro Primero: Historical Memory and Culture in the Making of Urban Social Movements in Caracas.”