On April 12, 2002, the Venezuelan media were gloating how a day earlier they had removed the troublesome Hugo Chavez from power. Theirs was not an empty boast. The private television channels and newspapers’ sustained campaign against the President had paid off in what some have called the world’s first media coup. The media did not just spin a yarn; they planned and, together with the military high command and the Catholic hierarchy, executed the coup. Eight years on, somewhat chastened but not reformed, they are having to face up to a different media landscape.
The overwhelming majority of the Venezuelan television, radio stations and newspapers is in private hands and as implacably hostile to the Bolivarian movement as ever. Their daily dose of psy-ops influences a significant part of the middle classes and, as the government supporters say, damages society’s mental health. Yet the state has avoided a head-on conflict with the old media establishment. Instead, the Bolivarian movement is creating its own media outlets and its sustained critique of the mainstream news is beginning to reach the communities.
Its latest initiative was unveiled on April 12, with the swearing-in of the first batch of 75 teenage “communication guerrillas” in a Caracas school. These 13- to 17-year-olds were trained for several months in media skills, some traditional and others not. The latter category includes handing out leaflets, engaging people on the streets, conducting interviews, using megaphones and drawing murals. They have also been trained in the use of radio, television and the Internet. The communication guerrillas will unite with cultural and music troupes to reinforce their presence on the streets, in schools and in their own communities. Hector Navarro, Venezuela’s Education Minister, says the communication guerrillas will unmask the lies of the Opposition-controlled media, “break with traditional styles, the monopoly of the media and put communication in the hands of the people”.
Why call them guerrillas? The terminology was first used in one of Chavez’s recent television appearances by his Vice President, Elias Jaua, and the President seemed to relish it. “Guerrillas have several characteristics,” says Navarro, “mobility, autonomy, versatility and they respond to the interests of the people… and this can also be attributed to communication. They do not have to wait for someone to lay down the line but that they automatically act and respond”. The shots these guerrillas will fire will be that of ideas, answering the establishment media campaigns. This is an ideological force, says Navarro, not an urban militia, as the hostile mainstream media has already made them out to be. Another Minister, Edgardo Ramirez, had a more pert answer. Because wherever there is terror, there are guerrillas. And in Venezuela the corporate media sows terror, instigates coups and tries to drive the population to violence.
The Chavez government’s strategy of creating community media is beginning to pay off. Local radio and television stations and print magazines are flourishing as never before. At least two major dailies now carry the Bolivarian message. Venezuela has Latin America’s highest Internet access, thanks in no small way to the hundreds of information centres set up by the government, which are free to use and which make the population technologically literate. A new generation of Bolivarian net users is now challenging the free run that the Opposition has had on web sites and on Twitter.
The Bolivarians have their own television communication guerrilla stars. Like Jorge Amorin, who wades into Opposition marches, challenges their leaders, and interrogates the well-heeled foot soldiers till they end up either snorting with undisguised class hate while waving their placards proclaiming liberty or physically attacking their interlocutors. These young TV reporters use biting humour and sarcasm to discredit the Chavez haters though, to be fair, the latter can do the job perfectly well themselves. This would have been unthinkable a few years ago; as ever, the Bolivarians were thought incapable of achieving the skill levels the Opposition in Venezuela enjoyed.
With the communication guerrillas, the message from the Bolivarian camp is that while the Opposition will retain its assets unless it veers into criminal regime change business, they will find their spaces being contested by a new generation of media- savvy rojo, rojitos (the very, very Reds).