On December 29 Hugo Chávez, President of Venezuela, recently re-elected with a whopping 61 percent of the vote, announced his intention not to renew the broadcast license of Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV), whose concession will expire in May. “They better go packing,” he said, adding lest he be misunderstood, “Start turning your equipment off.”
The announcement was not out of the blue, since a few days earlier Venezuela’s Minister of Communication and Information, William Lara, had said that licenses of privately owned media would be subject to revision, and the fate of RCTV would be decided by popular survey. Chávez now put it more colorfully. His Venezuela, he said, would not tolerate media “at the service of coup-plotting, against the people, against the nation, against the national independence and against the dignity of the Republic.” And when José Miguel Insulza, Secretary General of the OAS, denounced the move as censorship, Chávez called him a pendejo (“asshole”–translated by US media as “idiot”) who had no business intervening in Venezuela’s internal affairs.
In the weeks that followed, Chávez persuaded the legislature to give him the power to rule by decree for eighteen months, made known his plan to consolidate the parties of the left into one and announced his intention to nationalize various industries. Along the way he described Jesus Christ as “the greatest socialist in history,” ended a speech to the National Assembly by shouting “Socialism or death!” and, after US officials expressed concern about recent developments, advised, “Go to hell, gringos! Go home!”
* * *
When Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, proposed last summer that I join a mission to Caracas, I had my qualms. First, I didn’t speak Spanish (an interpreter can fix that, said Joel); second, I knew Chávez was overwhelmingly popular with the poor and I wasn’t interested in participating in an anti-Chávez hit job, even in the worthy cause of human rights. I quickly learned that under Chávez the National Assembly had passed the potentially repressive Law of Social Responsibility, which for example bars stations from broadcasting messages that “promote, defend or invite breaches of public order” or are “contrary to the security of the nation.” I also knew that in 2005 the National Assembly had increased criminal penalties for defamation and slander. But I shared Naomi Klein’s view (published here March 3, 2003) that it was “absurd to treat Chávez as the principal threat to a free press in Venezuela. That honor clearly goes to the media owners themselves.” (In the days leading up to the brief 2002 coup against Chávez, RCTV, as well as the three other major private stations, blanketed the airwaves with anti-Chávez speeches, interrupted only by oil company “public service” commercials, run free of charge, calling on viewers to take to the streets. When the coup began to collapse, RCTV blacked out the news, ran cartoons and instructed its staff to keep Chavistas off the air.)
Joel persuaded me that the mission, to be put together by CPJ’s Carlos Lauria, in whose bona fides I had confidence, had no hidden agenda. Moreover, Joel argued, perhaps my Nation connection, emeritus though I may be, would facilitate an audience with the man. (As it turned out, that was not to be; Chávez chose to attend Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s inauguration during our visit. I guess a head of state is entitled to his own priorities.)