Tuesday, May 29, 2007

An Eternal Abyss

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez forced Radio Caracas Television, the oldest private channel in the country and a station critical of his presidency, off the air. This resulted in widespread protests in the capital city of Caracas, where police fired tear gas and plastic bullets into crowds. At least three protesters were injured.

The power of Chávez and his presidency lies in manipulation. In order to reach the most people to facilitate their manipulation, he must control the media. His on-going war against journalists in Venezuela has been raging since the beginning of his presidency. Private newspapers have turned into government-run newspapers and journalists who disagree with Chávez are fired and are less likely to be hired by other publications because of their non-Chavista beliefs. In the wake of this struggle is the termination of RCTV. Of course, Chávez has said that the reason the station is being shut down is due to the expiration of its license. I find it hard to believe that a popular and successful station that has been running since 1953 would forget to renew their license. So what did happen? According to the European Union presidency who has been keeping a close eye on the South American country, Venezuela did not hold “an open competition for the successor license.” In other words, Venezuela allowed RCTV’s license to expire in order for the station to be shut down so that a new state-run channel would take its place. Globovisión is the only remaining private channel that is a voice for the opposition.

For someone who was democratically elected, the rights of the opposition are of little concern to him. Actually, an active part of his administration has been to redefine people’s rights. He has attempted this through a string of slogans: “the oligarchy”; “the rich”; “the opposition”; “us”; “them”, not including his perpetual inclusion of anti-United States, anti-Israel, and anti-Semitic rhetoric. (The slogan for the new channel, Socialist Venezuelan Television or TVES, is “Now Venezuela belongs to everyone.” The use of the word "belongs" is particularly compelling because it literally addresses one of Chávez's main goals and obsessions: to turn all privatized companies, organizations, institutions, into state-ran companies). The use of slogans in politics is as old as politics itself, they assist in rallying people and giving the candidates a platform. In the case of Chávez though, these slogans veil his attempts at destroying democratic institutions and the people that believe in them. These slogans are his first battalion of manipulation. His supporters lean on phrases such as “the oligarchy” in order to justify their actions, whatever they may be, and for Chávez to justify his own beliefs. (An example is irate would-be farmers, storming private agricultural lands screaming “fuera oligarcas” [out oligarchs] while wielding weapons, destroying the land, and sometimes killing the current farmers). The cycle of manipulation vis-à-vis slogans is a self-fulfilling exercise.

Another way he has manipulated his supporters is by demonstrating a false sense of accomplishment. For instance, he has changed the country’s flag, coat of arms, and even the country’s name during the tenure of his presidency. The flag used to have seven stars, representing the nations that South American hero Simón Bolivar liberated. Now the flag has eight stars, the last one representing the territory lying to the east of Venezuela that has been in dispute with Guyana for decades. The white horse in the coat of arms used to be facing the right. Now it is facing the Left. The country’s name was the Republic of Venezuela. Now it is the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

I feel these changes were enacted in order to signal the end of the “old” Venezuela, and the beginning of the “new” Venezuela, the Venezuela with a bold socialist agenda. But what did these changes actually accomplish? Well, nothing. Except in inflating the cult of personality of the country’s leader and giving his supporters something to point to and say “there, someone is finally doing something.” It is one thing to empower segments of the population that had previously been marginalized by other administrations, but it is another thing entirely to destroy democracy in what was once a democratic country by manipulating those who had previously been marginalized.

Joseph Pulitzer said that “Our Republic and its press will rise and fall together.” If this is true, and I certainly believe it is, then our republic is plummeting through an eternal abyss of ignorance, misinformation, manipulation, and destruction.

I am Venezuelan. I was born in Caracas, Venezuela in 1984. Even though my father isn’t Venezuelan, it was his home from 1977 until my family moved to Costa Rica in 1993. My mother is Venezuelan and so are my sister and my entire maternal family. Our lives have certainly changed since Chávez was elected in 1998. My grandparents moved from the neighborhood they had lived in since settling in Venezuela because violent Chávez supporters were located in the same area and they did not feel safe. (Bullet holes in the front door of the apartment building don’t inspire feelings of security). A close family friend was fired from an investment bank he worked in because he signed the referendum against Chávez. The apartment my family still owns and is renting has been devalued due to the current situation in the country.
Anti-Semitism has been increasing because of Chávez's rhetoric and his close partnership with Iran. The Jewish Community Center and School I used to go to with my family was raided in 2004 by armed and hooded Venezuelan investigative police in order to find information about the assassination of prosecutor Danilo Anderson. They locked classrooms where children were studying holding them hostage while they “searched for information.” Eventually, the students, who had not been allowed to communicate with their parents, were released three hours later. Nothing was found. The Jewish population in Venezuela has significantly dropped, with segments of the population immigrating to the United States.

Chávez headed a failed coup in 1992, was imprisoned for about two years when he was pardoned by then president Rafael Caldera, and in 1998 began campaigning for the presidency. It is clear that the achievement and maintaining of power was and is his goal, by any means necessary. The country’s constitution, as rewritten by Chávez, stipulates that a presidential term is for six years with one possibility of immediate reelection. There is also the option of a popular recall referendum anytime within the last three years of a term. When the constitution was changed, there was a new election.

Chávez has been in power since 1999 and he was just reelected in 2007, meaning that his term would end in 2013. Chávez is obviously in love with power and, since no opposition candidate favors his Bolivarian Revolution and because Chávez will not let his vision be compromised, I find it unlikely that he will freely leave office.

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