Grassroots Media in Contemporary Venezuela: The Battle of the CPC (Centro de Poder Communal)

International presses often criticize the Venezuelan government on issues around the freedom of the press, however, Venezuela has democratized its media outlets so that all communities can enjoy their right to freedom of speech. In this respect, Venezuela is far ahead of most nations when it comes to promoting free and accessible media.


International presses often criticize the Venezuelan government on issues around the freedom of the press, however, Venezuela has democratized its media outlets so that all communities can enjoy their right to freedom of speech. In this respect, Venezuela is far ahead of most nations when it comes to promoting free and accessible media. Media democratization is part of Venezuela’s larger economic process of shifting from a capitalist dependency to a socialist self-sufficiency, which includes the implementation of social programs including free health care, and education. As such, the relationship between civil society and the state in Venezuela is taking on new meaning. Worker and community councils, as well as grassroots media collectives, are fostering local engagement with national politics in a variety of unique ways. Community-based media collectives are part of a web of social movements that have long-term histories of political activism.

Many media activists believe their media work emerged out of the 1990s student protests against the dominant social order. These same activists are now contesting private space and re-defining the use of public space through their participation in community based media collectives. For example, the organizers of the Centro Poder Communal (CPC), a community center for collective organizing in Barquisimeto, Lara, which houses a free dentistry clinic, a community radio, Radio Crepuscular, a free video production school, Voces Urgentes, and a free school for popular art; Don Pio Alvarado, draw on indigenous strategies of resistance in their community organizing and media production methods. These activists have used media technology to bring local and national attention to the political struggles of their local communities. With the power to produce representations of their own realities, they have been able to ward off state bureaucracies whose interests have often come into tension with the local communities vision of participatory democracy. As such, the CPC have been at the forefront of some of the most symbolic and definitive battles to push social change forward from the bottom up.

In the state of Lara, battles over public space reach back to times of indigenous resistance to Spanish colonial domination. The state had a rebellious past that produced a major anti-government revolt in the 1920s and because of its mountainous geography; Lara was also an important base of the Venezuelan Tupamaro guerilla movement throughout the 1960s.[1] All of these social and environmental factors have greatly influenced the contemporary organizing strategies found among local participants in the Bolivarian process.

In 2009 tensions between the community participants and the local state government climaxed in a lock down where CPC members squatted in the center to secure the space from local deputies who wanted to take control of the space. The center was originally built in 2001 by the Lara state government as a local neighborhood office, but in 2007 it was taken under community social control by community activists unhappy with what they saw as a misuse of the space, its inaccessibility, and the nascent role it played during the 2002 attempted coup against president Chavez (during the coup, the CPC was completely abandoned). According to community radio producer at Radio Crepuscular, Ricardo David Diaz,

Before the coup, El Comandante (Chavez) inaugurated the center, and it was named the Citizen Participation Center. In the beginning, Chavez inaugurated it hoping that it would be a center for direct community participation. The same community would be in charge of the center and would participate in the radio. From the beginning, there was Radio Crepuscular 107.1. On his weekly program of Alo Presidente, Chavez stated that the radio should be used for the process, taking it to the communities, and that the same communities should take over the space. But during and after the coup it was not like that. The radio and the center were closed because they were in the hands of the governor. He was truly blind in the same way that the private media was, where no one knew anything, and nobody knew what was happening in the country. But all the people organized and demanded an answer as to where the president was and demanded his return. After his return Chavez went on Alo Presidente and stated, “this community radio has supported us this whole time and it is in your hands comrades.” But that same community was bothered because we knew that wasn’t the case. So we said to him, “Comandante, they are fooling you! This radio is not in the hands of the people; it’s in the governor’s hands! The space is professionalized, with 4 or 5 people getting a salary and defending the governor’s interests, not the interests of the people.” Soon after, Chavez confronted those in charge at the center and we presented a proposal for the self-management of the radio, which stated that the same community that produced and operated programs would be responsible for the transmission and equipment. The president liked the idea. He saw that our duty in that moment was to take the radio space. That was the first movement forward in this center. There were still issues of the governor of Lara paying those who worked in the center, and the institution was trying to maintain and expand its power here. The only space that was truly participatory at that time was the radio and not the entire center because the governor had closed it.[2] 

Thus in January of 2007, Carucenia activists locked themselves in the CPC for two weeks until the governor’s office agreed to negotiations on the community members terms.[3] Advocating for their own governance, Diaz notes, “We currently believe that popular power is a power that is directly horizontal. We would say that if this is the Center for Communal Power, then the people who coordinate it should be a collective coordination of five people, according to the proposal.”[4] Their success was supported by the use of Radio Crepuscular and Voces Urgentes as well as community media networks, which helped bring local and national support to the struggle. According to Katarina Korezek, community producer at Voces Urgentes,

When the promoters from the governor’s office arrived and announced that they had been sent to take over the CPC, an immediately assembly and debate was called which Voces Urgentes filmed. That video was placed with a press note on Aporrea and the ANMCLA web page the same day and that brought national attention and caused the governor to apologize for the action.  Local TV stations were also called and gave announcements against the actions of the governor’s office. The radio was also used to create a space for debate between the representatives form the governor’s office and the community.[5]

The ability to document their struggle, publicize it, and be supported by the state is a result of the important activist networks that have been created through the use of this community media which over the short history of the Bolivarian process has consistently taken sides against top down power initiatives, and attempted coups.

It became clear that the local government wanted to control the space because of the electoral power of the Carucenia, the neighborhood surrounding the CPC. Diaz notes, “29 community councils of five different political movements participate in the center. When we consolidate the membership of the Comuna, we will have the support of approximately 50,000 families, and then we will win the elections.”[6] After several negotiations, an agreement was reached with the governor. The center would be coordinated by a collective body including representatives from five different groups including; Voces Urgentes, Radio Crepuscular, and different consejo comunales (communal councils).[7]

While community members were occupying the CPC, Radio Crepuscular and Voces Urgentes, became important locations where community members used the radio and TV to bring public attention to the struggle to maintain the CPC. Gerardo Rojas, a community organizer and coordinator of Voces Urgentes highlighted how the take over reflected historical forms of resistance to Spanish colonialism. Rojas notes,

We came here out of political necessity. Not because we wanted to be journalists, we are not journalists, and we don’t want to be. During 1992 when President Chavez attempted the coup, we were the civilian movement that contributed to the change in government along with the military. Many outside of Venezuela stated it was a military coup because the attempt was executed by the military, and Chavez had ordered the coup, but that is false. The face of the coup was obviously a military one, but there was already a bursting movement of political unrest in the streets for years from student movements, cultural groups and community groups. They were rising up in the streets to express their freewill in the face of a repressive military. And so we arrived to the world of communication as a necessity of our political militancy.[8]

Using the means of communication as an arm of organizing propelled the original building of a local Barquisimeto community library called the Archoto Biblioteca Comunitaria (Archoto Community Library), which eventually led to the emergence of Voces Urgentes. According to Rojas, “Archoto was a leader from the Wayuu indigenous tribe that in the year 1600 commanded 100,000 men who struggled against European invaders for 60 years.”[9] When it was opened, the library turned into a meeting place for the student movement, the priests of the liberation theology movement, and women’s groups. It housed cultural and political activities and ran a film club. [10] Rojas suggests:

We weren’t satisfied with one space so we did multiple activities in the community and at the same time at the schools. We would show 4 productions a week with a projector or by carrying around a TV.  However, the films didn’t say anything about our community. From there, we started photographing, we picked up video cameras, and then we started putting the radio together. One thing was leading to the other. Communication became an instrument to strengthen community work. We were not going to get into communication and leave the community work. Rather, it became a tool along with our cultural activities and social work.[11]

In the case of the CPC, contestations to top down models of democracy came in direct tension with the local Lara government. While both national and state governments in Venezuela have taken public stances against US imperialistic intervention, their own political identifications with the proposed Venezuelan socialism however, differ depending on their stakes in upholding different versions of democracy. The state government of Lara positioned itself on the side of Chavez, however, its position on the battle of the CPC suggested that its vision of participatory democracy differed from CPC activists. During an airing of Alo Presidente, Chavez on the other hand, publically announced his commitment to handing over power to communities once they were strong enough to carry the revolution forward on their own terms.

The on-air practice of collective discussions on successes, challenges and strategies for change directly contrasts with the elite-centered representations found in the majority of corporate stations. For example, at Radio Crepuscular, the radio always had its television tuned into state channels in order to interpret current events for local listeners. This kind of programming helped create dialogue between members of the Carucenia community and the events taking place across the nation.

While community media only maintains five percent of the overall radio spectrum with  eighty-five percent of airwaves belonging to private corporations and ten percent belongs to the state,[12] community media has developed strategies to combat this technological monopoly by foregrounding local community members as the protagonists of their own realities. The community media producers at Voces Urgentes for example, follow a pedagogy of libratory education where they take what they know and multiply it by teaching others, making information more accessible. Rojas notes,

What’s important to us is not just what we’re doing but how we’re doing it. We are not going to promote a pedagogy of participatory democracy where I decide everything because I am the one who is most familiar with an issue. Instead, we prefer collective error with an individual truth because in collective error everyone learns from the mistakes.Generally what we see in a lot of the workshops we do is that when someone asks someone else about communication, the first thing they imagine is a microphone, a camera, equipment, and technology. This image generates the idea that this is what communication looks like. But for true communication to exist, we need each other, two people. It’s impossible to be in communication individually. Communication is actually rooted in the word and idea of community.[13]

Working from the idea that community and communication come from the same root, Voces Urgentes produces media where “the people” appear on screen as protagonists. This emphasis de-centers elite aesthetics, strengthens democracy, and promotes diversity.

Community media, in this way has become a critical instrument of the revolution within the nationally promoted Bolivarian Revolution; however, many collectives don’t follow a uniform notion of political engagement or audiovisual production and each network decides on the way they want to interact with state power and financing. Changing laws on community-based media have been formed, in large part, from the levels of control the state has over the radio stations.

State laws are consistently forced into negotiation and revision by the political activism of radio producers. One such law, The Ley Organica de Telecomunicaiones (Organic Law of Telecommunications), passed in 2000, recognized and legalized underground radio and television stations. While this law allowed the legal functioning, funding, and the disbursement of media equipment to community collectives, it has also had a lot of limitations. According to Katarina Korezek, the law maintained that each neighborhood could only have one radio or TV station. This in turn posed a problem for some regions where neighborhoods were so large that one station did not have the signal strength to cover the entire area.[14]

Also, in 2002, the government passed the Reglamento De Radio fusion Sonora y Television Abierta comunitarias de Servicio Publico, sin fines de lucro (Regulation of Open Community Public Service Radio and Television, Non Profit) that created the regulations, which allowed community radio and television stations to be authorized.[15] Under this law, stations had to become authorized from the Telecommunications commission, which forced them to meet requirements in four specific fields: social, legal, technical, and economic. For communities that had never officially applied for state funds or drafted proposals, this posed a challenge.

While national media policies created some bureaucratic limitations around community media access and programming, community media networks are still at the forefront of pushing the process forward on their own terms. These collectives are often “talking back” to the state and at the same time “talking to” each other creating multi-directional dialogue and a unique state/civil society relationship. Community medias’ model, which privileges the people as key players in history and representational politics, characterizes contemporary media activism in Venezuela.

With the Venezuelan nation in transition to socialism, direct and indirect confrontations such as the one at the CPC, over public and private space are being negotiated by community media networks that challenge the historical tendency of corporate media which glorifies the individual. Community based organizing through media, proposes new methods to engage civil society and the state, where the means of production and representation may be held in the hands of those traditionally excluded from history.

[1] Fox, Michael. ‘CECOSESOLA: Four Decades of Independent Struggle for a Venezuelan Cooperative.’ June 19, 2006. http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/1793

[2] Diaz Castillo, Ricardo David. Interview with author. Summer 2009

[3] Korezek, Katarina. Interview with author. Summer 2009.

[4] Diaz interview.

[5] Korezek interview.

[6] ibid.

[7] In April 2006 the Venezuelan government passed The Law of Communal Councils (Consejos Comunales), which allows the formation of neighborhood-based councils that collectively coordinate local projects towards community development. These councils promote cooperatives and projects that reflect the collective interests of their community. All council decisions are made through discussions and voting within a citizens’ assembly. Councils work autonomously although often coordinate with municipal administrations and receive funds through government sponsorship. Communal councils are new models of localized socialism and participatory democracy. Over 19,500 councils have already been registered throughout the country. For more information see www.venezuelanalysis.com

[8] Rojas, Gerardo. Interview with author, Summer 2009.

[9] ibid.

[10] ANMCLA newspaper, June 2009.

[11] Rojas interview.

[12] Fernandes, 213.

[13] Rojas interview.

[14] Korezek interview

[15] Fernandes, 211.