Who Are the Real “Freedom Fighters” in Venezuela?

Students dressed in black t-shirts, bowing down in front of lines of riot police, pleading for liberty, freedom of expression, and freedom from repression. Is this the same old story, the same classic situation of a courageous movement of freedom-fighter youth determined to overthrow a repressive, undemocratic dictator?

Students dressed in black t-shirts, bowing down in front of lines of riot police, at times marching peacefully through the streets and at times confronting tear-gas with masks and rocks, even handing white carnations to the policemen, pleading for liberty, freedom of expression, and freedom from repression. These are the images of Venezuela’s “freedom fighters,” reminiscent of Tiananmen Square or Eastern European youth fighting the wrath of tyranny, of communist dictatorship, demanding freedom and human rights. Is this the same old story, the same classic situation of a courageous movement of freedom-fighter youth determined to overthrow a repressive, undemocratic dictator?

As I walked the streets of Caracas over the last two weeks, listening to the discussions in the street, attending both the opposition marches as well as the pro-government marches, and talking to both groups about their views, their reasons, and their beliefs of what democracy means, what tyranny is, and especially what freedom of expression looks like, I came to better understand what separates Venezuela’s student opposition movement from the pro-Chavez groups. Ultimately, I realized that Venezuela’s newly emerged student “freedom fighters” seem to be missing a lot in their understanding of democracy, tyranny, and freedom itself. But, even more interestingly, I came to realize that the real freedom fighters in Venezuela aren’t the anti-government students and journalists, but rather another much larger group of political activists who have been almost totally ignored in mainstream and international media.

RCTV: The Voice of El Pueblo

Apparently, the whole thing exploded when the government of Hugo Chavez denied the private television channel RCTV a renewal of its 20-year broadcast license, forcing it off the public airwaves last May. Marches in the streets of Caracas were centered around “freedom of expression,” claiming that the government’s decision was taking away the people’s freedom to express or receive information in opposition to the government. One of the marchers’ most common chants was “libertad, libertad!” turning the RCTV television channel into a symbol of freedom. Another common slogan assures that RCTV is “La Voz del Pueblo” (The voice of the people)

But does RCTV really represent freedom of expression or the voice of the people? We might better ask the question, does any private corporate media represent freedom of expression? The pro-Chavez marchers clearly understand that this is not the case because they know that this type of media does not actually represent the voice of the people, but rather the voice of the business interests that control it. But pro-RCTV marchers don’t seem to understand that behind their beloved television channel lie specific economic interests that obligate it to promote certain views and suppress others. The voice of “el pueblo” hardly has any influence, except when the people are saying what RCTV wants to hear.

Actually this is nothing too surprising. All private corporate media in the world function in basically the same way. The financing comes exclusively from advertising, which means they are financed by some of the largest economic groups and advertising agencies in the world. Nearly all of the world’s corporate media is under the ownership of large national and multinational corporations as is RCTV, founded by a businessman from the United States in the 1920’s. His family, long since one of the major elite families of the country, still controls the majority of the shares, and still makes most of its income from selling advertising to huge multinational conglomerates.

And so views that go against the economic interests of these groups are, of course, suppressed, whereas those views that could be beneficial to the economic interests of the elite capitalists are repeatedly espoused. Just as the economic groups that own and finance CNN (Time Warner), for example, would not normally permit CNN’s programming to advocate views that would be damaging to its interests (anti-globalization movements or the break-up of media conglomerates, for example), the economic groups that own and finance RCTV would obviously not espouse views that go against their interests. And in the grand battle between things like capitalism or socialism, privatization or nationalization, neoliberalism or protectionism, the corporate media all come down on the same side of the debate.

Although all of this is well known among the political left, Venezuela’s student movement apparently doesn’t get it. RCTV is far from the voice of el pueblo. A forum for national debate that categorically prevents certain views and promotes others in line with specific economic interests is hardly the symbol of freedom that Venezuela’s opposition has made it out to be.

Capitalism = Freedom

Another fundamental problem with the views of anti-government activists is their seemingly uncritical stance toward capitalism and their bitter hatred of pretty much any alternative to it. “No to Communism!” say the signs of the opposition march.  “Socialism is a failure!” “No to Castro-communism!” are some of the chants and shouts of the students, journalists, and Caracas’ middle class protesters in the streets, in buses, and in subway stations of the capital city. For opposition groups it is as clear as day that communism, socialism, or any other alternative to capitalism is simply a form of tyranny. Of course, these systems have led to authoritarian dictatorial regimes in the past, and the opposition activists are sure they will only mean more tyranny in the future.

But here is another major hole in the arguments and thought of the Venezuelan opposition that prevents it from understanding the context behind the situation in Venezuela. Of course, they are right that attempts to build communism and socialism have largely failed and have many times led to forms of brutal authoritarianism in the past. But that is only the side of the story that they have been fed by mainstream accounts. The other side of the story is that capitalism has done the same thing on a much larger scale all over the world.  Venezuela’s opposition doesn’t seem to understand that capitalism, almost by definition, is a system that leads to an enormous concentration of power and ends up preventing any chance of real democracy.

In fact, this is so evident that Albert Einstein clearly understood this back in 1949 and summed it up in the following critique of capitalism:

“Private capital tends to become concentrated in few hands, partly because of competition among the capitalists and partly because technological development and the increasing division of labor encourage the formation of larger units of production at the expense of smaller ones. The result of these developments is an oligarchy of private capital, the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society. This is true since the members of legislative bodies are selected by political parties, largely financed or otherwise influenced by private capitalists who, for all practical purposes, separate the electorate from the legislature. The consequence is that the representatives of the people do not in fact sufficiently protect the interests of the underprivileged sections of the population. Moreover, under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.” (“Why Socialism?” Albert Einstein, Monthly Review, 1949)

And most anyone who takes an honest look as most of the world’s capitalist democracies can clearly see that most of the things that Einstein criticized half a century ago are still happening today. The political system, instead of being democratically controlled by the population, comes under the dominance of the economic elite, creating a type of tyranny that is not completely visible, but hidden under the mask of liberal democracy.

But, for the RCTV freedom fighters, capitalism equals freedom, and all alternatives to capitalism equal tyranny. What the marchers in the streets of Caracas ironically don’t understand is that they themselves are victims of the very subtle and pernicious form of tyranny that capitalism inevitably creates. Nor do they understand the role that North American imperialism plays in maintaining that tyranny.

Little do they understand that they too are victims of the very economic elite, intimately linked to the empire, that they are so vehemently supporting in their pro-RCTV marches; that their very ideas of what things like freedom of expression, democracy, and liberty mean have been completely manufactured by the very same media they are marching in the streets to defend. There doesn’t seem to be a single person among the marchers who understands that the economic elite that owns the private media doesn’t really care about freedom of expression, democracy, or any of those nice things that they pretend to care about, (neither Washington, nor the Venezuelan economic elite seemed to care when the dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez usurped all state powers in the 1950’s and ruled as a dictator for nearly a decade, or when leftists, communists and political opponents were tortured, killed, jailed, and exiled during the last half century of supposed “democracy”) but rather that they are only concerned about their profits, their investments, their economic interests, just as sensible capitalists always must be.

What the opposition activists seem to ignore is that the surge in poverty, crime and violence that has been felt across Latin America over the last 20 years is largely the result of the neoliberal policies and reforms promoted by Washington and the very elite economic groups that control RCTV and other private media; the same private media that, after President Carlos Andres Perez called out the military to massacre thousands of people protesting the neoliberal reforms in 1989, didn’t seem to be at all worried about freedom of expression, liberty, or democracy.

In fact, RCTV General Director Eladio Larez, in a live broadcast on RCTV shortly after the brutal 1989 massacre, actually praised the efforts of what he called the “extraordinary team named Venezuela” made up of “the people and government working together to quickly overcome the crisis.” There didn’t seem to be much concern for the freedom of expression, or liberty of the thousands who were shot dead in the streets, nor was there any hint of the kind of fierce criticisms that Chavez has endured over the last 8 years, but rather a friendly gloss-over of the truth behind the class conflict that led to the violence.

The fact that the anti-government marchers don’t seem to understand any of this, but rather continue to defend the elite groups that have controlled the nation’s media for centuries, is evidence enough that they themselves are victims of media manipulation and distortion. That they would suddenly feel that they have lost their freedom of expression simply because their favorite TV channel tells them so (and has the freedom of expression to tell them so, as do other existing opposition television channels, newspapers, radio stations), whereas there is absolutely no concern about the very serious lack of freedom of expression that corporate media represent, shows that the Venezuelan opposition is clearly confused about the reality of free expression in Venezuela. In the end, it appears that Venezuela’s “freedom fighters” have an idea of freedom that is actually corporate domination, their idea of democracy is actually capitalist tyranny, and their idea of free expression, is free expression for the elite, but not for “el pueblo”.

Venezuela’s Real Freedom Fighters

But Venezuela is not without its true freedom fighters, even if they haven’t been given the reputation or any coverage from international media. In the last few weeks, talking to people in the streets of Caracas, I have indeed met many activists who truly understand what “libertad” means, and all that the term implies. And while the RCTV marchers have been busy marching in the streets of Caracas, Venezuela’s real freedom fighters, although largely ignored by the corporate media, have also been very busy all over Venezuela debating and discussing the future of the country, and working to assure true freedom for Venezuela.

While national and international media were focusing on the students in the streets as they tried to convince the world that they have no freedom of expression, much larger numbers of political activists in Venezuela were discussing and debating with their fellow citizens the future political structure of the Bolivarian Revolution, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). In fact, throughout the month of May nearly 5.7 million people registered for the newly created party.

To put that number in perspective, before Chavez became president in 1998 with 3.6 million votes, the highest number of votes a Venezuelan president had ever gotten in a national election was 3.8 million votes. The new party of the Bolivarian Revolution registered 5.7 million voters in little over a month.

There are already more than 25 thousand party “promoters” who have deployed around the country to discuss and debate among the general population the political program of the new party. And it will be their job in July to create more than 20 thousand assemblies in communities across Venezuela that will discuss and decide on the political program of the party and later elect spokespersons to go to a national constitutional assembly to design the official program of the new party.

Of the 5.7 million who have already registered, nearly one-third are younger than 30, and around 100,000 are only 18 years old. Thousands of youth under the age of 18 have also asked to be allowed to register, even sending a group letter to the president himself, and Chavez has said he might allow their entry. Perhaps this is the real student movement in Venezuela, but it has gotten almost no attention from the mainstream media.

And not only are these activists much larger in numbers, they also have a much deeper understanding of the real threats to freedom and democracy. They understand the inherent problems of capitalism, and are interested in constructing a new kind of “Socialism for the 21st Century.” They understand the truth behind corporate media, assuring me that RCTV operated in the interests of a small minority, masquerading as a channel of the people. They understand, as did Einstein in 1949, that the national and international media are under the control of private capitalists that have always marginalized and censored the views of the oppressed majority serving to, as they say, “poison the minds of the people.”

Many of the militant pro-Chavez activists also understand that much of what was being broadcast on RCTV and other private channels was all part of a larger strategy directed from Washington to overthrow the Chavez government. (One of the more creative signs at a recent pro-Chavez march showed a caricature of Uncle Sam controlling an RCTV puppy-dog by remote control.) We now have more than enough evidence to show that the student protests in Venezuela are all part of a larger Washington strategy used in many different countries over the last few years such as Serbia (2000), Georgia (2003), and the Ukraine (2004) to overthrow undesirable regimes (see my May 13th article entitled “Washington’s New Imperial Strategy in Venezuela”). But activists in the pro-Chavez camp already knew this. “These student protests are all a part of Washington’s plan,” one activist told me, as if it were common sense.

Perhaps most importantly, those people registering for the new revolutionary PSUV are conscious of North American imperialism and understand that a long history of exploitation, imperialism, and economic dependence is the real cause of poverty in Venezuela (not the supposed laziness and inferiority of the Venezuelan people as was recently claimed here on a private television channel). They are not blind, uncritical followers of President Chavez, but rather political activists concerned with the continuation of this anti-imperialist project. They are interested in solidifying the revolution beyond its leader Hugo Chavez and into a permanent structure to assure that the capitalist oligarchy never again dominates Venezuela, its media, its institutions, or its economy. “No volverán!” shout the pro-Chavez marchers, assuring that the elite groups that traditionally dominated Venezuela “will not return!”

And as for the issue of the day, freedom of expression, people in the pro-Chavez camp know that freedom of expression goes much deeper than simply entrusting the control of the media to private corporations. For the pro-Chavez activists, real freedom of expression will be achieved only when the media is democratized, and when control is really in the hands of the people, not a small minority.

“We have never had more freedom of expression than we have now,” told me one taxi driver in Catia. “Before, you could never criticize the president like they do now, or say the things people say now.”

In another part of town a middle-aged journalist smiles at me after finishing a talk show on a community radio station and says “Its so nice that now I have a space to be heard, to finally give my point of view, my criticisms, my observations, and be able to debate them publicly. Before this government, journalists like me never had a voice.”

The real freedom fighters in Venezuela are not those students protesting in the streets of Caracas, posing for the cameras of the international media, but rather those millions of activists across the country, many of whom had never before been included in Venezuela’s political system, who are leading a popular movement in support of real democracy. These activists fight to be free from economic dependence, free from North American imperialism, and free from elite domination. Venezuela’s real freedom fighters are the grassroots activists who have, over the last month, come out en masse to register for the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, to solidify the revolution, to discuss what socialism means, and to work towards assuring a free and independent Venezuela for the future of their children and grandchildren.

As the Venezuelan Vice-President Jorge Rodriguez said upon receiving the astounding registration results for the PSUV last week, the results represent “the unbending will of the Venezuelan people and their irreversible decision to be free.”