CARACAS-On Sunday night, May 27, at 11:59, the big switch took place. RCTV broadcast the National Hymn of Venezuela, sung by faces as pale as those you would find in any country, but this one a country Alejo Carpentier called the telluric compendium of the Americas. One second later, the insignia for Venezuelan Social Television (TVES) appeared on screen. A song from the street, a popular guaracha, reminded anyone listening “that everything comes to an end,” and over Mount Avila the fireworks flashed.
Recently, Venezuela has lived a kind of schizophrenia. Anyone following the news of the nonrenewal of RCTV’s license would inevitably conclude-informed by the dominant, opposition-controlled newspapers and broadcasters-that the Bolivarian revolution has lost its grip and that the country teeters on the edge of civil war, its institutions shattered. Racist insults, poorly disguised calls to violence, shouts and wails have come from Globovisión and RCTV as well as from El Nacional and El Universal, the broadcasters and newspapers with the largest audiences and print runs in the country.
Nevertheless, the street held no surprises, only the timid disturbance of the afternoon rain and of the Chavistas’ Sunday night fiesta on the grounds of the Teresa Carreño Theater, a party which did not dull the sound of smashing bottles, pelting stones, and even gunshots fired at the Metropolitan Police overseeing an opposition march in front of the headquarters of the National Commission on Telecommunications, or CONATEL. Any sociology student would have noticed the enormous difference between the faces that celebrated the end of RCTV’s concession and those attacking the state in RCTV’s final broadcast: on one side, a rainbow from Caracas; on the other, a tour group from Key Biscayne?
On Sunday, RCTV broadcast an 18-hour marathon that fostered distrust of the authorities and the sensation of living under immediate threat, attempting to psychologically poison and wear down both the television audience and the dozens who attended the live studio event. Irresponsibly, Globovisión-a network occasionally involved with RCTV-covered the broadcast and lent a funereal mood to its news coverage. Both private broadcasters did their part to escalate emotions. Not only did they ask citizens to defy the police and take to the streets, but they also lied, downplaying popular support for the government’s decision and stating that 80 percent of the country was against terminating the license of the pro-coup network.
Jesse Chacón, the minister of Popular Power for Telecommunication and Information Technology, commented on the paradox that sustains this schizophrenia between reality and its deformed reflection in the media, a reflection supported by private Venezuelan commercial interests. “It’s unfathomable. They complain about the lack of freedom of expression and they do it through public programming, yelling at all hours of the day, without hosting other points of view and without presenting even one example of news or opinion that the government has censored,” Chacón said.
RCTV’s situation would never have received such attention if others were not so bent on focusing disinformation on the Bolivarian government. It is hardly the first time RCTV has vacated the national frequency spectrum-the network was closed on three occasions, in governments previous to Hugo Chavez’s-nor is Venezuela the first to decide to maintain control of its airwaves. In fact, the country is following the European television model of public ownership practiced by Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands, to name a few. This model differs from commercial television practiced in North America, where what sells is good and what doesn’t is bad.
In ancient Greece, when a crime was committed, punishment was meted out by the sword. Today we understand the difference between the means of punishment and the end result. In Venezuela, as Eleazar Díaz Rangel, director of the newspaper Últimas Noticias, advised, this distinction remains perfectly clear. From now on, he affirmed in his Sunday column, “The owners of RCTV can no longer use Channel 2 to inform and misinform according to their political or commercial interests. In this sense, the decision affects them, but the possibility of working through other means-television, radio, business interests-is not denied them.” In the game of manipulation, Marcel Granier, the owner of the network, has come out as a strong candidate for canonization by major international media, which paint him as a victim. No one now remembers RCTV’s suicidal rallying calls in support of the coup of April 2002, or its obstinate refusal to broadcast information about the popular protests that made possible Chavez’s return to Miraflores.
With Granier as the hero of the bonfire of political vanities, a new villain has appeared-the businessman Gustavo Cisneros. A new and unexpected kindling feeds the fires of the opposition demonstrations in eastern Caracas: copies of the best-seller “Cisneros: Un Empresario Global,” the biography of the owner of television station Venevisión, whose license was renewed on May 28.
Venevisión participated with RCTV and other private television stations in the coup against President Chávez in April 2002. The memories of journalists, television executives and coup plotters congratulating each other for their close collaboration in the coup are still fresh in the minds of Venezuelans.
In 2003, Cisneros met with Chávez and with ex-President Jimmy Carter. Since then, he has changed his violently anti-Chavista rhetoric and his calls for civil disobedience, while maintaining his criticism of the Venezuelan government. Shortly afterwards, another VHF national television station, Televen, followed suit.
Venevisión and Televen are proof positive that the end of RCTV´s license to transmit is not the nationalization of the mass media in Venezuela. In this country, more than others in Latin America, there is a plethora of media: privately owned commercial media (80 percent), state-owned media, public service media (TVES) and community media.
Why ignore this reality? Why do so few now remember that Venevisión and Televen are still there, opponents of Chávez, but yet with their licenses extended?
Why then does the Spanish newspaper El Pais and others that offer Granier ample space in their editions not see how he has abused the freedom of expression in Venezuela? Why does no one now remember these facts? Accidental amnesia? Are the media innocent in their handling of the decision by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice to grant the Venezuelan state use of RCTV’s antennas and transmitters for the release of TVES? Why were the media unaware that arrangements for the transfer of equipment included payment negotiated with the owners of RCTV? The price was not only just, but rather generous. Últimas Noticias disinterred from the archive a resolution from November 16, 1973, made during the first administration of Rafael Cadera, in which the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry established that “any installations that RCTV is required to build, the lands, the towers and construction that are built at RCTV’s expense, will be understood as exclusive property of the Republic.”
As I finish these lines, I hear the National Hymn again, but now performed live from the Teresa Carreño Theater by the Symphonic Youth Orchestra. It is 12:23 a.m. on Monday, the 28th of May. The camera shows children, women and the elderly, white and black and mestizo. The young director of the orchestra raises his baton, bounds onto the stage, gesticulates and, as he finishes conducting the last bar, a commercial for the new network rolls across the screen: “TVES-como eres de verdad” (You see yourself as you really are). And that is how it seems to be.
Translated by Aaron Hawn