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Don't Cry For Me Venezuela

Posted: Monday, May 28, 2007

By: Duke Romero Banks (Expired article)

Arlington, VA -

These are reflections on the closure of "Radio Caracas Television" - RCTV and implications for Democracy in Venezuela and the region. [AP Photo]

Based on the number of e-mails we’ve received this weekend concerning developments in Venezuela and the closure of RCTV, I’ve decided to prepare this reflection of what has occurred recently in Caracas. It includes links to various audio and video files to give everyone the opportunity to appreciate what is truly going on in Venezuela.

A friend of mine who lives in Northern California wrote that he is surprised there is no US news about this development in the local newspaper. In fact, the US media does a very poor job of following international news, particularly with respect to Latin America. In the US, the best English language newspaper to follow developments in Latin America is the Miami Herald. This is, however, a distant second to its Spanish counterpart, El Nuevo Herald, or

You would think the Spanish version of the Miami Herald would be a mere translation of the English version; it is not. The Spanish version has many more in-depth articles concerning Latin America than its English counterpart. To find out what is truly going on in Venezuela, one should go to the Internet and search on "Venezuelan News Sources", such as the major newspapers: El Universal or El Nacional. For English speakers the Venezuela Today website is highly recommended, since it provides links to everything you need to know about Venezuela. It's balanced by also including pro-Chavista web-sites.

Last Thursday the Miami Herald ran a very damning op-ed piece by Rep. Tom Lantos, (D), California concerning RCTV, entitled: “Chavez Tries Mind Control.” This piece is eviscerating for Chavez, since Mr. Lantos is the only member of Congress who is a Holocaust survivor and can talk about what happens when an authoritarian state uses the media for propaganda purposes.

US TV stations have demonstrated sad coverage of the Venezuelan situation; much different than the Spanish Language US Stations Univision and Telemundo who have been following the story very closely.

While the US press has almost ignored the story, it is a hot topic in the international press. I suggest reading the translation of the editorial of the Le Monde in Paris that is included at the end of this reflection. It is representative of the worldwide condemnation that the Chavez government is receiving for closing the RCTV television station. The European Parliament, the Chilean Congress, and the US Senate have all issued Resolutions condemning the closure of RCTV.

During my Voice of America interview on Friday, the Venezuelan Consul in Chicago gave assurances that RCTV was not being “closed” but only its “concession” was not being renewed. Assurances were made that the property and equipment of RCTV would be respected and that the station could continue broadcasting on either cable or satellite. Mr. Bernardo Alvarez, the Venezuelan Ambassador, made a similar statement in his letter to Senator Dodd concerning the bipartisan Senate Resolution Number 211 passed on Friday concerning the closure of RCTV.

However on Friday, the following developments occurred:
  1. The military began patrolling the streets of Caracas in a show of force.
  2. At 5PM the Supreme Court issued a ruling that authorized the military to take over RCTV transmitters so that their new public service channel could have nationwide coverage when RCTV ceased operating on the VHF frequency. (Channels 2-13).
  3. On Friday night, government sponsored hoodlum groups made a show of force at the offices of Globovision, the only other private station in Venezuela that does not tow the party line. Altercations occurred, the station was vandalized, and the police were nowhere to be seen.
It is important to note in point two that the Supreme Court not only made liars of the Venezuelan Ambassador and Consul, but also shows the Court has no respect for the concept of private property. It also demonstrates that the Judicial Branch is under the influence of the Executive Branch and has no independence.

As an aside, this ruling was issued only two hours after the government requested it and issued after working hours when there was no time to file an appeal. On the other hand, RCTV has over 25 requests for rulings over the last several years, which has never seen the light of day. RCTV is still waiting for rulings based on their petitions,

On Saturday and Sunday, the opposition organized marches in support of RCTV. The opposition included very innovative uses of the Internet, including sending people to sites to download an alarm. Then, on Saturday and Sunday night at 10PM, massive demonstrations took place throughout the country as people bang pots and pans, plus put their computer speakers by their windows, and cranked up the volume full blast, playing the alarm file on their computer. Based on phone calls we had with Caracas after 10PM we can attest that the sound was deafening, as a good part of the country was showing Chavez that they were against the closure of the iconic TV station that pioneered television in Venezuela.

Thanks to the Internet, we were able to follow these developments during the entire weekend, including witnessing what to me was the most riveting television I have ever witnessed: the final hours of the RCTV broadcast before the plug was pulled on Sunday night. During this time we had several calls from Venezuela, keeping us up-to-date on developments as they occurred. It was a very surreal experience. Fortunately all of our family members stayed home and were out of harms way.

The “send off” program by RCTV will probably rank as one of the most powerful statements ever for the need to preserve Freedom of Expression as an essential pillar of a democratic system. The sight of all those employees packed into their own studio pleading for the right to remain on the air was indeed riveting. The Press Conference offered by Marcel Granier, President of the holding company, which owns RCTV, was simply extraordinary where he calmly stated that the editorial line of the station was not to be compromised, and that the station would not be sold. He said that the reason the government was closing the station was because they were scared to hear other opinions - and scared that they may be wrong. He concluded that while the government may think they have won because of the closure they, in fact, lost because of the international outrage that is occurring.

The send-off recounted a 53-year history of the station that pioneered TV in Venezuela. This included showing Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon, the first color broadcast in the country - not to mention the longest running comedy show (at 48 years) in the world: Radio Rochela. This beloved show is a Monday evening fixture that is the most watched program on Venezuelan television. What is very moving is this Radio Rochela skit that blends Venezuelan dance, music, and the history of RCTV. Through humor and song, the skit tells the Venezuelan public that if RCTV is shut down, they will not have an outlet for news and entertainment.

The professionalism of the entire RCTV staff, and their love for Venezuela, came through when they all sang the station’s theme song “Un corazon que grita”, (A Heart that Screams out to You) and the National Anthem just before they ceased broadcasting. There was not a dry eye in the house.

At the same time Chavez supporters were having counter-demonstrations supporting the government’s decision to close RCTV because of the need to “democratize the airways” by using the channel 2 broadcast spectrum to broadcast public service television. The cynicism of the government and intimidation of the remaining media was demonstrated by reminding all media outlets that they should not refer to the RCTV case as the “closure” of a TV station. Instead, they were to refer to the incident as the “non-renewal” of a broadcast concession. To do otherwise was to broadcast “dishonest” information.

The government’s position was so extreme that it prohibited the rebroadcast of the Press Conference of the Inter-American Press Association, (which sent a delegation to Caracas to witness the closure of RCTV) because it denounced the government’s action. According to the government, the Inter-American Press Association is not a true journalist organization since it represents only private media and their vested interests.

On Monday there were further demonstrations throughout the country deploring the closure of their beloved RCTV. The government also requested that the Attorney General (Fiscalia) look into whether or not Globovision (the other private TV station) and CNN were promoting anarchy because of the way they were covering events.. You read that right: the Venezuelan government is contemplating suing CNN. Check out this BBC story on how the government is eyeing both Globovision and CNN.

The Venezuelan Propaganda Machine

Knowing that the closing of RCTV would be a controversial move, the Venezuelan Government made an all-out effort to “spin” their side of the story. In the US, they used their Venezuelan Information Office to put out White Papers to tell their side of the story, plus have Chavist apologists like Eva Gollinger and Mark Weisbrot write about the glories of the Bolivarian Revolution.

They have been on overdrive in the last few weeks, including sponsoring a “Campaign for the Truth” project whereby Representatives of the Venezuelan Government visit other countries to “explain” the facts of the RCTV case. In the US, the delegation included members of the National Assembly. Similar delegations were sent to Argentina, Brasil, Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, and Spain.

One of the cruxes of their argument is that RCTV is a neo-fascist station because it had supported the April 2002 “Coup.” In fact, the Supreme Court ruled that it was not a coup, but a power vacuum that occurred. The Venezuelan Government at that time promised to create a “Truth Commission” to determine exactly what happened on April 11-13, 2002, but this commission was never established. So it is ironic that they are now sending out delegations for their “Campaign to Tell the Truth” project when they have resisted efforts to establish the Truth Commission.

Over the weekend, the Venezuelan Government through their embassies, organized po-Chavez demonstrations in Managua, Nicaragua, and San Salvador, El Salvador. I also understand that there were other rallies in Mexico.

As much as the Venezuelan Government claims that the US and European powers meddle in their internal affairs, they have no qualms in intervening in other nation’s affairs, including using their diplomatic corps to organize pro-government rallies in other countries.


The government’s decision to close down RCTV was made for both political and practical purposes. It does not want dissent, and it coveted the transmitting equipment of RCTV because it is the only station that has nationwide coverage on the VHF spectrum. More importantly, Venezuela is now an elected Dictatorship with only a minimal facade of democracy.

However the political capital will be enormous. RCTV is extremely popular, and has the highest ratings of any station in Venezuela. RCTV purposely makes sure that is programming does not appear elitist, as reflected in the down-to-earth nature of the Radio Rochela skit, and the large number of soap operas it produces. Over 80% of Venezuelans (including the majority of Chavistas) do not approve closing down RCTV. It remains to be seen what will be the reaction of the ordinary Venezuelan when he finds out that he/she can’t tune into his/her favorite soap opera, not to mention their beloved Radio Rochela.

I presume that the entire diplomatic corps in Caracas was tuned into the RCTV send off show. Their dispatches to their respective Foreign Ministries on Monday will provide for interesting reading in the future as most governments will undoubtedly report that with the closure of RCTV, Venezuela is now an authoritarian state.

What will be fascinating for future historians is how these dispatches will describe the poise, professionalism, and dignity of RCTV staff as opposed to the cynical response and behavior of government officials.

Regional Implications – The Role of the OAS

The Chavez situation has regional implications because of the meddling of the Venezuelan government in the internal affairs of other countries, including the organizing of pro-government demonstrations in other countries as mentioned previously. Not reported in the US media, but over the weekend, National Assemblyman José Luis Pirela, and Bolivarina University Rector Rafael María Bara were arrested in Barranquilla, Colombia for intervening in political acts. They were deported immediately back to Venezuela.

Notwithstanding the tacit support Chavez may have with some governments (Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Brazil and Argentina) there is widespread concern about his influence in the region.

One would expect that the OAS would say or do something, but for the moment it does not look promising because of the 11 members CARICOM group, which composes the small island nations of the Caribbean. Because Chavez is providing them with extremely generous oil subsidies, they are very reluctant to speak out against Chavez for fear of losing their oil subsidy, which will undermine their small, fragile, economies. With this voting block Chavez has effectively neutralized the OAS.

But as Tom Lantos said in his Miami Herald op-ed, the time to speak out is now. Next week the OAS will have their Annual General Assembly meeting in Panama, where the Foreign Ministers of all member states will be represented. If the OAS is to have any relevance we need to wait and see what happens in Panama.

In the meantime, keep Venezuela in your prayers.

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