Venezuela’s Barrio Newswire

A report on Catia TVe, one of Venezuela's most dynamic community television stations, where the residents who make the news make the news programs.

By J.P. Leary - Z Magazine
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High above the broad avenues and glass skyscrapers of the Venezuelan capital, Petare rests on a knife’s edge. A shantytown—recently renamed the United Republic of Petare by its 1,500 or so residents—Petare lies on one of the hills overlooking east Caracas. The house-sized scars along the steep, unpaved road are grim reminders of the mudslides that every year claim uncounted lives: uncounted because until recently in Venezuela, few people have ever seen any reason to count the people that live in these neighborhoods.  

The barrio television network Catia TVe is filming a segment in Petare. (Catia is one of Caracas’s oldest and largest ghettoes, and “Ve” is the third-person conjugation of the Spanish verb “to see”; the station’s punning name therefore translates as “Catia sees you.”). The crew uses one microphone and two digital camcorders to interview residents, children, and activists from the neighborhood assembly. No Catia TVe personality ever appears onscreen in this segment. In fact, there are no Catia TVe “personalities” in the tradition of the suit-jacketed, hair-gelled evening-news correspondent. Its only gesture to the conventional format of television news is a bulky microphone emblazoned with the station’s logo. 

This episode will be called “Cayapa in the Community”— cayapa roughly means any kind of collective work and it reflects one of the station’s main operating principles. Catia TVe’s young engineer, Gabriel Gil—recently expelled from Venezuela’s biggest university for leading student strikes against tuition increases—repeats its slogan, “Don’t watch television, make television. The idea is that the communities make television and they communicate with themselves this way, through the neighborhood broadcaster. It’s not one person speaking to everybody else, like in the commercial news, or the product of one leader who puts out a single line for every issue,” as in party-affiliated press. 

In this and other editions of Catia TVe, there are no slick graphic cues, no superficial conclusions. Interviewers repeatedly ask the kind of questions that do not anticipate specific answers: What is the biggest problem here? Do you have clean water? What do you do when it rains? How many of your children attend school? What are your dreams? 

Everything Is Possible 

Edgar Barrios, a local assembly leader, ushered the TV crew around the area. He smiled and announced on camera, “I think my neighborhood is beautiful, lovely, impeccable, and above all, organized.” Since they are officially categorized as temporary “invasions” of public land, few of Caracas’s slum areas receive any city services, so water and electricity are illegally pilfered from the metropolitan grid. In spite of these problems, Barrios said, “We have a lot of hope for the government, and we need [building] materials more than anything. But the people will do it. Everything is possible. Everything has a solution.” 

According to the station’s directors, 70 percent of the programming aired by Catia TVe, in its daily 5-hour slot on a UHF station limited to west Caracas or on its weekly appearances on national state television, is produced by what it calls Community Teams of Independent Audiovisual Production, known by the Spanish acronym, ECPAIs. The rest of the network’s material is largely produced by a core group of journalists and technicians, some of whom draw modest salaries from the station. The ECPAIs are volunteer production teams who use Catia TVe’s equipment and expertise—and attend the station’s video-making workshops—to make everything from documentaries on local history and proper garbage disposal to short fictional films and regular shows like “AmbienTV,” an interview program hosted by Catia impresario Luis Sálazar. Sálazar argues that shows like his have a purpose distinct from that of commercial media: “The community media has a special sensitivity to, essentially, the daily life of the people. It has a social, community function.” 

The ECPAIs regularly circulate in and out of the station’s headquarters in the 23 de Enero district of west Caracas. The teams are only loosely organized by the central Catia TVe staff, which edits, approves, and in about 30 percent of the cases, also produces material for broadcast and otherwise functions as a kind of nodal point for the work of the various teams. Their purpose, according to Catia TVe managing director Ricardo Márquez, “is to grab people from the community who have no idea how to write a script, have no idea how to work a camera, have no idea how to stage a scene and to teach them all the theoretical and practical tools to make a show.” 

Catia TVe’s ambitions extend beyond distributing cameras to local residents, according to Márquez. “It’s about changing [the country’s] audiovisual discourse as well,” he says. 

Bolivarian Revolution 

Poor and working-class urban neighborhoods like Petare and 23 de Enero—built and populated over the years by rural migrants and more recently Colombian refugees and other Latin American immigrants—form the base of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s ambitious and contentious plan to remake the nation in the image of its liberator Simon Bolívar. Since a failed coup attempt in 2002 and a series of opposition-led strikes and business lockouts, Venezuelan society has become starkly polarized along class lines. In a nation where at least 85 percent of the population lives in cities, Caracas is the flashpoint of the national crisis. Residents of the predominantly working-class west generally support the leftist president and his “Bolivarian revolution,” with the middle- and upper-class east belonging to the political opposition’s camp. 

In this climate, the political allegiances of the national news media are unmistakable. The principal private television networks—including Venevision, owned by billionaire Gustavo Cisneros, the Rupert Murdoch of the Americas— cast their lot with the opposition, and offer a stridently anti-Chavez editorial line and a regular cycle of pro-opposition political commercials. The programming is unapol- ogetically partisan. 

The private news media thus occupies the somewhat unusual position of activist political opposition to, and total independence from, the sitting national government, whose representatives almost never appear on private television. The print media ranges from the jingoism of the daily 2001 to the demure, metropolitan elitism of El Universal, the national paper of record, and Ultimas Noticias, a national tabloid with the most liberal reporting in the country and the least politicized editorial agenda (which does not say a great deal). In response, the government has recently begun breaking into prime-time network programming with brief spots that rather clumsily celebrate government triumphs in agriculture, urban reform, or health care. Media reform legislation like the controversial “Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television” has been condemned as an affront to free speech by both the Venezuelan opposition and Human Rights Watch, although it is still unclear what enforcement procedures the new law would allow, and HRW’s statement on the law was careful to praise the current absence of any government censorship in Venezuela.

Catia TVe enjoys the political support of the national government (which it returns in kind) and would not be on the air without a media deregulation law passed by the Chávez administration in 2001. The measure widely liberalized local and non-profit access to radio and television licenses, giving Venezuela some of the most open airwaves in the world. In so doing, the law also allowed pro-government and left-leaning journalists access to airtime. (Under the law, anyone, regardless of political affiliation, may apply for a broadcast license. Few, if any, opposition groups have yet felt the need to organize neighborhood radio stations, however.) 

Catia TVe’s former executive director, Blanca Eekhout, a native of the country’s central plains who earned a film studies degree from the Central University of Venezuela, once interviewed Chavez on his weekly “Alo Presidente” TV show and the president has expressed his personal support for the station. Eekhout was recently chosen to head the new government- sponsored station Visión Venezuela Televisión (Vive TV), apparently an attempt to incorporate some of the participatory values of community television into a national channel. Catia TVe officials, however, claim that they receive no financial support from the Administration besides grants from the national communications ministry, CONATEL. But the station makes no secret of its place on the left of the Venezuelan political spectrum and every member of the its staff declares their general support for “el proceso,” the combination of government political reforms and the barrio militancy spurred by Chavez’s presidency. Jesús Suárez, a music conservatory student from Catia who learned about the station through one of its ECPAI workshops, says, “I am with this process. I like this process.” He adds, however, that “I don’t consider myself a chavista, because Chavez is Chavez, and I am me. He can be wrong. But he does good things, in comparison with other groups—or rather, with the other group.” 

Barrio Newswire 

Although Catia TVe owes a great deal to the Chávez presidency, it cites its own origins ten years earlier in Caracas’s Manicomio barrio, one of the city’s oldest, where a small group of residents founded the Simon Rodriguez de Manicomio Casa de Cultura. The neighborhood, named for the insane asylum that once stood there, was a political and commercial center of Caracas in the colonial period, when the city lay along the main trade route to the Caribbean coast. 

In February 1989, an uprising known as the Caracazo engulfed the poor districts and later the entire capital after the government of Carlos Andrés Pérez introduced neoliberal economic reforms that doubled bus fares overnight. Several days of fierce military repression of the insurgent barrios followed, leaving at least several hundred dead. It is difficult to overstate the importance of the Caracazo in the memories of Chávez supporters—it is, as one activist told me, “Year Zero” of the Bolivarian Revolution. 

Recalling the 1989 violence, Eekhout charges that the commercial media at once endorsed the military’s repressive tactics and ignored the widespread killings in west Caracas. For Eekhout, “there was a rupture not only with the government, but there was a break with the media because the media that always tried to pass themselves off as mediators took an absolutely emphatic position in defense of the system—and what’s more, of legitimizing the most violent acts of repression against an unarmed population that the country had lived through in its history. So from there emerged most strongly the necessity to have your own media, your own image.” 

The Casa de Cultura soon moved into a government-run grocery store looted and abandoned after rioting in the area. One of the center’s first projects was a film club that screened Latin American feature films on a donated 16-mm projector. When west Caracas’s municipal government (led at the time by Aristobulo Isturis, now the national Minister of Education) donated a video camera to the club, it began to make its own movies. Eekhout, one of the film club’s co-founders, recalls that immediately, “We went out and filmed on the street, on the corner, in the bodega, the neighborhood dog—everybody. Then this material was shown and the impact was astonishing. Going to see those films was very important, but when they started to see themselves, more and more people started to come, and they came back to see the same thing thousands of times and, well, the camera was turned into an extraordinary tool.” The Manicomio collective shortly began distributing these videos to other community centers across the city, she says, “like an itinerant barrio newswire on VHS.” 

Technical improvements aside, Catia TVe’s current programming has not wavered much from these early videos’ basic intention—to consider the history, politics, and daily life of west Caracas from the perspective of its residents. Eekhout also describes the station as a kind of testimonial archive for those excluded from the life of the capital, which suffers in her view from a collective “urban amnesia” regarding its poorest communities. “The recuperation of memory,” she says, “is made more important by the threat of uprooting that the barrios face at any moment, and precisely because they are victims of the plunder of the peasant lands and displacement there—and then they are not accepted as citizens in the city. So to recover this history and to vindicate the fact of their having arrived on this land [in Caracas] was and is very important.” 

The program on the Petare shantytown, “Cayapa in the Community,” aired on the national government channel’s weekly “Things My People Say” program. For one Saturday morning, Petare found its way into living rooms throughout the immense territory of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. For José Gomez, a Catia TVe cameraperson in his mid-20s, this is an unprecedented phenomenon: “In the commercial media,” he says, “[the poor] are invisible, they don’t exist. And when they do exist, they are portrayed as the mob, the horde, ‘the blacks.’ What has happened in Venezuela for the past 40 years is that the poor communities have been nothing more than an object of the news media.” 

At one of Catia TVe’s weekly open meetings, where community residents are encouraged to contribute new program ideas, a middle-aged man from Catia proposed a show profiling the professionals, doctors, and lawyers in his neighborhood, to counteract the mainstream image of criminality and idleness. In rejecting his proposal, Eekhout politely told him, “the camera cannot solve your problems.” Catia TVe insists that the community media be a product of the community being depicted—and that the newscaster’s video camera has no authority of its own, independent of its operator. Catia TVe journalism, is not just an exercise in making better images, in showing the “good side” of the barrio, but in what one ECPAI member called “social transformation.” Until now, Márquez says, “Television has only taught us to think about the lottery, horse races, and beauty queens.” The broadcasts are, in effect, an instrument for consciousness-raising, to enact the “cultural transformation” that he believes is necessary for political changes to take hold. 

In July 2003, Catia TVe’s broadcast equipment was seized during a police raid on its transmission station, located in a public hospital near Manicomio. The raid, ordered by the anti-Chavez mayor of Caracas, Alfredo Peña, was widely condemned as illegal censorship abroad and even in some Venezuelan papers, which considered the move hypocritical at a time when the opposition was loudly campaigning against the government’s Law of Social Responsibility. Almost immediately, the NGO Reporters Without Borders condemned Peña’s actions. However, José Miguel Vivanco, the Peruvian director of the Human Rights Watch Americas division, who had issued a strong criticism of the Law of Social Responsibility days earlier, failed to make a statement until after Peña had rescinded his order over a week later. (Referring to a Peruvian television station recently shut by its government, Ultimas Noticias columnist Eleazar Díaz Rangel wryly remarked, “We hope that Vivanco takes a position against the closing of Panamericana TV by the Toledo government before it reopens.”) 

A phrase uttered constantly by almost everyone at Catia TVe, “tomar la palabra,” is difficult to translate: it literally means “take the word,” but it can only be rendered in English metaphorically, as in “take the floor.” The distinction is significant. Márquez sees the continuing threats against the station this way: “Catia TVe strives to ‘give the floor’ to all those who never had the opportunity to take the floor. And this bothers some people a lot.”

J. P. Leary is a PhD student in Comparative Literature at New York University.