After days of rival protests in the streets of Caracas, memories have been revived of earlier attempts to overthrow the Bolivarian revolution of Hugo Chávez, now in its ninth year. Street demonstrations, culminating in an attempted coup in 2002 and a prolonged lock-out at the national oil industry, once seemed the last resort of an opposition unable to make headway at the polls. Yet the current unrest is a feeble echo of those tumultuous events, and the political struggle takes place on a smaller canvas. Today’s battle is for the hearts and minds of a younger generation confused by the upheavals of an uncharted revolutionary process.
University students from privileged backgrounds have been pitched against newly enfranchised young people from the impoverished shantytowns, beneficiaries of the increased oil royalties spent on higher education projects for the poor. These separate groups never meet, but both sides occupy their familiar battleground within the city, one in the leafy squares of eastern Caracas, the other in the narrow and teeming streets in the west. This symbolic battle will become ever more familiar in Latin America in the years ahead: rich against poor, white against brown and black, immigrant settlers against indigenous peoples, privileged minorities against the great mass of the population. History may have come to an end in other parts of the world, but in this continent historical processes are in full flood.
Ostensibly the argument is about the media, and the government’s decision not to renew the broadcasting license of a prominent station, Radio Caracas Television (RCTV), and to hand its frequencies to a newly established state channel. What are the rights of commercial television channels? What are the responsibilities of those funded by the state? Where should the balance between them lie? Academic questions in Europe and the US, the debate in Latin America is loud and impassioned. Here there is little tradition of public broadcasting, and commercial stations often received their license in the days of military rule.
The debate in Venezuela has less to do with the alleged absence of freedom of expression than with a perennially tricky issue locally referred to as “exclusion”, a shorthand term for “race” and “racism”. RCTV was not just a politically reactionary organization which supported the 2002 coup attempt against a democratically elected government – it was also a white supremacist channel. Its staff and presenters, in a country largely of black and indigenous descent, were uniformly white, as were the protagonists of its soap operas and the advertisements it carried. It was “colonial” television, reflecting the desires and ambitions of an external power.
At the final, close-down party of RCTV last month, those most in view on the screen were long-haired and pulchritudinous young blondes. Such images make for excellent television watching by European and North American males, and these languorous blondes are indeed familiar figures from the Miss World and Miss Universe competitions in which the children of recent immigrants from Europe are invariably Venezuela’s chief contenders. Yet their ubiquity on the screen prevented the channel from presenting a mirror to the society that it sought to serve or to entertain. To watch a Venezuelan commercial station (and several still survive) is to imagine that you have been transported to the US. Everything is based on a modern, urban and industrialized society, remote from the experience of most Venezuelans. Their programs, argues Aristóbulo Istúriz, until recently Chávez’s minister of education (and an Afro-Venezuelan), encourage racism, discrimination and exclusion.
The new state-funded channels (and there are several of them too, plus innumerable community radio stations) are doing something completely different, and unusual in the competitive world of commercial television. Their programs look as though they are taking place in Venezuela, and they display the cross-section of the population to be seen on cross-country buses or on the Caracas metro. As in every country in the world, not everyone in Venezuela is a natural beauty. Many are old, ugly and fat. Today they are given a voice and a face on the television channels of the state. Many are deaf or hard of hearing. Now they have sign language interpretation on every program. Many are inarticulate peasants. They too have their moment on the screen. Their immediate and dangerous struggle for land is not just being observed by a documentary film-maker from the city. They are being taught to make the films themselves.
Blanca Eekhout, the head of Vive TV, the government’s cultural channel, launched two years ago, coined the slogan “Don’t watch television, make it”. Classes in film-making have been set up all over the country. Lil Rodríguez, an Afro-Venezuelan journalist and the boss of TVES, the channel that replaces RCTV, claims that it will become “a useful space for rescuing those values that other models of television always ignore, especially our Afro-heritage”. With time, the excluded will find a voice within the mainstream.
Little of this is under discussion in the dialogue of the deaf on the streets of Caracas. For the protesting university students, the argument about the media is just one more stick with which to hit out against the ever-popular Chávez. Yet as they mourn the loss of their favourite soap operas, they are already aware that their eventual loss may be more substantial. As children of the oligarchy, they might have expected soon to run the country. Now fresh faces are emerging from the shantytowns to challenge them, a new class educating itself at speed and planning to seize their birthright.
Just a few weeks ago, Chávez outlined his plans for university reform, encouraging wider access and the development of a different curriculum. New colleges and technical institutes across the country will dilute the prestige of the older establishments, still the preserve of the wealthy, and the battle over the media will soon be submerged in a wider struggle for educational reform. Chávez takes no notice of the complaints and simply soldiers on, with the characteristics of an evangelical preacher: he urges people to lead moral lives, live simply and resist the lure of consumerism. He is embarked on a challenge to the established order that has long prevailed in Venezuela and throughout the rest of Latin America, hoping that the message of his cultural revolution will soon echo across the continent.