I recently spoke at a showing of Oliver Stone’s new film, South of the Border, in York. The opening scenes of the film comically highlight the delusional things that are said about Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan President, and the huge American media bias against him and the governing Venezuelan United Socialist Party (PSUV). The media distortions surrounding Venezuelan politics, particularly Hugo Chavez himself, are not just peculiar to Venezuelan and American television, but also the so-called Left/liberal media in Britain. In recent times, the views expressed have been far from the comedic “satire” constituting Stone’s introductory sequence, but supposedly serious critiques of Chavez’s alleged “dismantling” of democratic processes. Unfortunately, these “critiques” are often one-sided or neglect to mention the context to a particular event in Venezuela’s political history. Most interesting, and ideological, is the failure of these reports to accurately represent the relative power of the state, the government and the interests of private capital. Indeed, sometimes these power relations are represented as fantastically inverted.
A paragraph from Francisco Toro’s latest comment piece in the Guardian is a case in point:
The five state TV channels, the dozens of state-backed “community radio” stations and a slew of state newspapers are unembarrassed to act as the propaganda arm of the ruling party, openly campaigning for the ruling party. Meanwhile, people who oppose the government on TV find themselves facing obscure criminal charges and radio stations that broadcast critical content are shut down en masse.
The BBC, to whom Toro links with the words “themselves facing obscure criminal charges”, goes so far as to say the following in relation to the arrest of the businessman, Guillermo Zuloaga:
Mr Zuloaga owns Globovision, the only television channel to remain openly critical of the government.
The suggestion that there is only one television channel that remains “openly critical” of the government is a fantasy. The last report from the European Union on Venezuelan elections said the following:
The Venezuelan media display a great diversity of political opinions. However, considered individually, the main media outlets only exceptionally referred to the various political actors in a manner which could be considered both fair and balanced. Most of the private media tended to offer more space to the views of the political forces critical of the Government, and when expressing their political preferences, they often disregarded basic journalistic principles.
Even the measured words of the EU report to an extent belie the reality. RCTV, one of Venezuela’s largest privately owned networks was instrumental in the coup d’état of 2002. The coup ousted Chavez for a mere 47 hours, until nearly 1 million people marched on the Presidential Palace, many of whom came from the poorest barrios of Caracas, to demand his reinstatement (in 2009, it was my privilege to visit Caracas and meet some of these people). The private media actively militates against Venezuela’s legitimate government – the PSUV (both the Carter institute and EU observers have indicated Venezuelan elections are free and fair). In this respect, one can view the so-called propagandising of the state media as the ideological self-defence of the elected government. Without it, opposition propaganda would hegemonize all public discourse.
Of course, this charged and polarised public sphere is not a desirable feature of Venezuelan political life. However, it is an obvious corollary of the political struggles occurring in Venezuela. Before Chavez’s ascendancy to power, 80% of Venezuelan’s lived in poverty or absolute poverty. Since 1998, the Chavez administration has pulled 2 million people out of poverty and levels of extreme poverty have been cut in half. Extensive social programmes, including the implementation of universal healthcare and an education system free of charge all the way up to, and including, higher education, have also increased the living standards of Venezuela’s poor majority. This radical social agenda has relied heavily on breaking with IMF economic policies and redistributing Venezuela’s oil wealth. Naturally, this has ruptured the Venezuelan political and economic consensus and attracted the ire of elite interests – the same interests controlling Venezuela’s privately owned media networks.
It’s in this respect that Toro’s scathing reference to the ‘community radio stations’ is misleading. The state facilitates the creation of TV and radio stations run by independent groups of Venezuelans. More often than not, these stations broadcast into, and are managed by those living in, the barrios. In this respect, it’s understandable that they have a pro-government bias. The PSUV draws overwhelming support from the barrios, for the reason that Chavez’s social and economic reforms have made the lives of millions of poor Venezuelan’s infinitely better. Support for Chavez is a result of common sense reasoning on behalf of these Venezuelans. To equate the limited broadcast range of these stations, and the interests they represent, with the economic might of the Venezuelan private media is certainly gratuitous.
Venezuela’s polarised public sphere, then, is not a function of a belligerent government, hell bent on turning Venezuela into a dictatorship. The use of state means to publicise the Bolivarian revolution’s extensive achievements is a reaction to the already existing, overwhelmingly hostile media environment. The PSUV and the interests of big capital are in the middle of an ideological war – the former is using its limited propaganda arsenal to defend itself from the media Howitzers of the latter. As in 2002, this struggle can break into open physical conflict (although it is worth noting that this was initiated by the opposition). This is by no means an ideal situation, but it is a reality nonetheless – a reality engendered by the very material antagonism between Venezuela’s poor majority on the one hand, and private, elite interests on the other. Given this political reality the fundamental question – and the 2002 coup indicates this is by no means overly reductive – is: whose side are you on?