Tales of Resistance: Do We Have a Right to Information?

VA columnist Jessica Dos Santos talks about the Venezuelan authorities' frustrating habit of only delivering good news.
Jessica Dos Santos urges the Venezuelan state to trust the people and provide reliable information on public services. (Venezuelanalysis)

In matters of love, we often expect our significant other to know what’s going on without having to say it. We assume our partner is some sort of fortune teller, who must also accept our actions and attitudes even if they do not understand them. This is not the most healthy of habits, and can lead to relationships getting hurt in the long run, or not surviving at all.

For the time being, that is more or less the relationship between the Venezuelan people and the state. We live in a state of constant guessing, self-explanations, scouring under rocks to find information that should be available to all. Take one example: a few weeks ago, water supply in my community shrunk to the point of almost vanishing.

I’ve been living here for seven years, so I have experienced the ups and downs of this issue. In the beginning, it was terrible. Then it got way better, then worse again. Surely, each of those phases had a good reason, a thorough explanation (even if that’s scant consolation when you don’t have water). But no one ever gave one. We never know why it happens, what changed.

On this latest occasion, neighbors got together to try and find answers. The parish is split into 50 communities spanning 272 streets. Each then got in touch with water authorities, like in the old days of the Technical Water Groups (Mesas Técnicas de Agua). This led to identifying issues ranging from 40-year-old pipes that no longer work to leaks or even missing valves.

I wondered if this is the norm in other parts of town, but it’s impossible to know.

Still, this is just water, what happens with other stuff? In 2009, for example, President Chávez announced a plan to ration electricity use amidst lower water levels at the major dams as a result of the El Niño climate phenomenon.

He assumed the political cost of that decision, the attacks from the opposition and the criticism from the media. Truth be told, it was a nuisance to buy the newspaper, or find the pdf document, locate your area and find out the days and times when you’d be powerless. It was more than four hours a day in some sectors. Nevertheless, it allowed us to plan our affairs, protect appliances from damage, etc.

Nowadays there is no way to prevent anger, everything is a (unpleasant) surprise.

Another recurring theme: fuel. After shortages became widespread once again, with long queues in many regions and a near-total elimination of subsidized gasoline, authorities came out calling for “calm” because “operations have been restarted in El Palito refinery.” Restarted? When were they halted? And why?

Amidst the search for answers, the National Iranian Oil Engineering and Construction Company (NIOEC) came out. Last year it received a US $110 million contract to perform repair works, and announced that the refinery will be fully operational in two months.

This lack of information is a condition whereby only good news gets broadcast. Refineries that only reactivate, never get damaged. Whatever is negative is just forced on us by reality.

In this context, during a recent ceremony for National Journalist’s Day, President Maduro and Culture Minister Ernesto Villegas “scolded” allied communicators because “information is a right, not a gift. People deserve to know what’s going on. The people demand informative reporting.”

The jokes write themselves at this point, but at the same time I wondered: what are journalists supposed to report if authorities (in different areas) do not disclose information? Even ministers need permission from higher up to give statements. There have been plenty of cases of officials being out of a job for talking to the press without permission.

What do we do when even the most basic official data has been hidden for years? The Central Bank, for instance, stopped publishing GDP data in 2019. We only started getting monthly inflation figures again once it got significantly lower.

Just as these thoughts swirled through my mind, Villegas, who is a journalist, looked like he realized the double-edged nature of his words. So he lamented that media outlets did not properly report on the locations and times of a recent theater festival. Information is good but pretty selective, it seems.

As a journalist, it fills me with anguish to not be able to investigate or ask questions. A recent high-profile case was the corruption scandal at state oil company PDVSA. Authorities provided plenty of information about the detainees, embezzlement figures, even the offices where the fraud dealings took place. And then they closed the tap. Former Oil Minister Tareck El Aissami, who at least has political responsibility amidst it all, has been AWOL since March.

I won’t pretend that journalism has not been a battlefront in Venezuela, especially when it comes to the corporate media, so we understand that there is caution needed. The 2002 coup is a cautionary tale. But this habit of hiding inconvenient information, even raising suspicions of those who want to know more, reveals a lack of trust in the people. The people have always been up to the task, whether that’s defeating coup attempts or figuring out why there’s no water.

Jessica Dos Santos is a Venezuelan university professor, journalist and writer whose work has appeared in outlets such as RT, Épale CCS magazine and Investig’Action. She is the author of the book “Caracas en Alpargatas” (2018). She’s won the Aníbal Nazoa Journalism Prize in 2014 and received honorable mentions in the Simón Bolívar National Journalism prize in 2016 and 2018.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.

Translated by Venezuelanalysis.