Poor Endy Chávez, outfielder for the Navegantes del Magallanes, one of Venezuela’s big baseball teams. Every time he comes up to bat, the local TV sportscasters start in with the jokes. “Here comes Chávez. No, not the pro-Cuban dictator Chávez, the other Chávez.” Or “This Chávez hits baseballs, not the Venezuelan people.”
In Venezuela, even color commentators are enlisted in the commercial media’s open bid to oust the democratically elected government of Hugo Chávez. Andrés Izarra, a Venezuelan television journalist, says that the campaign has done so much violence to truthful information on the national airwaves that the four private TV stations have effectively forfeited their right to broadcast. “I think their licenses should be revoked,” he says.
It’s the sort of extreme pronouncement one has come to expect from Chávez, known for nicknaming the stations “the four horsemen of the apocalypse.” Izarra, however, is harder to dismiss. A squeaky clean made-for-TV type, he worked as assignment editor in charge of Latin America at CNN en Español until he was hired as news production manager for Venezuela’s highest-rated newscast, El Observador on RCTV.
On April 13, 2002, the day after business leader Pedro Carmona briefly seized power, Izarra quit that job under what he describes as “extreme emotional stress.” Ever since, he has been sounding the alarm about the threat posed to democracy when the media decide to abandon journalism and pour all their persuasive powers into winning a war being waged over oil.
Venezuela’s private television stations are owned by wealthy families with serious financial stakes in defeating Chávez. Venevisión, the most-watched network, is owned by Gustavo Cisneros, a mogul dubbed “the joint venture king” by the New York Post. The Cisneros Group has partnered with many top US brands–from AOL and Coca-Cola to Pizza Hut and Playboy–becoming a gatekeeper to the Latin American market.
Cisneros is also a tireless proselytizer for continental free trade, telling the world, as he did in a 1999 profile in LatinCEO magazine, that “Latin America is now fully committed to free trade, and fully committed to globalization…. As a continent it has made a choice.” But with Latin American voters choosing politicians like Chávez, that has been looking like false advertising, selling a consensus that doesn’t exist.
All this helps explain why, in the days leading up to the April coup, Venevisión, RCTV, Globovisión and Televen replaced regular programming with relentless anti-Chávez speeches, interrupted only for commercials calling on viewers to take to the streets: “Not one step backward. Out! Leave now!” The ads were sponsored by the oil industry, but the stations carried them free, as “public service announcements.”
They went further: On the night of the coup, Cisneros’s station played host to meetings among the plotters, including Carmona. The president of Venezuela’s broadcasting chamber co-signed the decree dissolving the elected National Assembly. And while the stations openly rejoiced at news of Chávez’s “resignation,” when pro-Chávez forces mobilized for his return a total news blackout was imposed.