Zero Hour for Venezuela’s RCTV

The expiration of Venezuelan broadcaster RCTV‘s public concession draws near: at 11:59pm on Sunday, May 27th, RCTV’s concession will expire without renewal, and its space on channel 2 will be handed over to the newly-founded Venezuelan Social Television (TVes), which will begin broadcasts at 12:15am on May 28th.  This sovereign decision of the Venezuelan government not to renew RCTV’s concession has prompted claims that freedom of speech is somehow under threat in Venezuela.

But many discussions of freedom of speech rely on a fundamentally flawed assumption: that existing media outlets in some way embody “freedom.”  The debate surrounding RCTV is no exception.  It is this flawed assertion that has been openly embraced by the Venezuelan opposition and equally openly challenged by those who reject efforts to paint the non-renewal of the broadcasting concession for Venezuela’s RCTV as an issue of free speech at all (see my previous comments here).

Decades spent under the hegemonic shadow of the discourse of “civil society against the state” has led us to assume that all that is not under state control is free, thereby conveniently obscuring the unfreedom of economic, specifically market forces.  So for the non-renewal of RCTV to be a free speech issue at all, one would have to make the ultimately doomed argument that RCTV, under the direction of Marcel Granier and media conglomerate “1 Broadcasting Caracas” (1BC), somehow represents an expression of the people’s freedom rather than the freedom of its small group of shareholders.

The Oligarchy and the Media

Don’t get me wrong, these shareholders are a fine bunch, and among the purest specimens of the rancid oligarchy that has controlled Venezuela since the colonial conquest.  1BC was founded in 1920 by William H. Phelps Jr. (then under the name Phelps Group), whose father emigrated to Venezuela from the United States.  Phelps Jr. would marry Alicia Tucker, thereby giving rise to an oligarchic family tree of colossal proportions with 1BC and RCTV at its center.  RCTV’s broadcasting concession would pass from Phelps Jr. to his children Johnny Phelps and William Phelps Tucker, and the latter’s wife Katherine Deery de Phelps, and finally on to Johnny Phelps’ daughters Dorothy and Patricia.

Current 1BC stockholders reflect this dense tangle of blood and wealth: the principal stockholder is Peter Bottome (son of Deery, son-in-law of Phelps Tucker), as well as Alicia Phelps de Tovar (daughter of Johnny), U.S.-educated Mavesa grease magnate Alberto Tovar Phelps (son of Alicia), Guillermo Tucker Arismendi (related through Phelps’ wife Katherine, as well as to one of the heads of the conglomerate controlling Globovisión).  And then there is current 1BC president Marcel Granier, who entered the picture by marrying Dorothy Phelps, and to whom it now falls to convince Venezuelans that the conglomerate (which also controls radio stations, record stores, and an airline) is in some way “democratic.”  To emphasize the power that the Phelps wield in Venezuela, one need only note that Johnny Phelps’ other daughter Patricia is married to Gustavo Cisneros, Venezuela’s most powerful media magnate and direct competitor of 1BC.

Together, 1BC’s RCTV and Cisneros’ Venevisión control 85% of publicity investment, 66% of transmitting capacity, and 80% of the production of all messages, information, and media content in the country, according to a recent White Book on RCTV issued by the Ministry of Communication.  As a journalist in the opposition-controlled newspaper El Universal argued a few years back: “On what moral basis can they come out in defense of free speech and competition when these are at risk, when they themselves propose to monopolize them?”  If Venezuela relies on the likes of Granier and Cisneros to defend free speech, then the situation is indeed as bad as the opposition claims.

The Last Gasp of the Opposition

In the aftermath of Chávez’s landslide December victory, the opposition is running out of options, and they know it.  The path of the coup and the bosses’ strike failed in April and December of 2002, respectively, and despite widespread claims that Chávez is a “dictator,” the electoral path too has failed on eight separate occasions.  While some, like former presidential candidate and governor of Zulia Manuel Rosales’ Un Nuevo Tiempo party (which comprises some recent defectors from Primero Justicia), call for the creation of a centrist coalition and a “new majority,” others are more realistic.  Realizing that they cannot win, but using the pretext of unfair elections, organizations like Antonio Ledezma’s Alianza Bravo Pueblo and sectors of Acción Democratica have repeatedly advocated abstention and open resistance to the regime (a call embodied at present in the heroic-sounding “National Resistance Committee”).

Now, catching the scent of an opportunity, the Venezuelan opposition has thrown their full force behind the mobilizations in defense of RCTV.  These efforts focus, unsurprisingly, on the international stage, where the opposition has courted European and North American public opinion.  Representatives of the European Union, the Organization of American States, and even the Pope have jumped on the pro-RCTV (and hence pro-“free speech”) bandwagon.  Domestically, however, the opposition’s strategy has been a mixed bag.  Opinion polls show that the RCTV question divides Chavistas, and this is clearly why the opposition finds it so alluring as an issue.  But when the opposition threw its weight behind the “mother of all marches” last Saturday, the results were pathetic.

The march featured an all-star lineup: Rosales himself spoke, along with Granier as well as a number of RCTV personalities, the most reactionary of which is Miguel Angel “Little Granier” Rodríguez (see below).  The speakers duly pronounced upon the massive nature of the mobilization, and a boom camera swept across the group, transmitting misleadingly narrow crowd shots.  When interviewed leaving the march, many participants would parrot claims about the size of the march: “The entire pueblo turned out!” one clearly upper-middle class protestor exclaimed while walking eastward toward the wealthiest zone of Caracas, “We should have marched on the highway.”

To provide some necessary context: the Venezuelan opposition has indeed marched on the Francisco Fajardo highway on several occasions, notably during the run-up to the 2002 coup, the 2004 referendum, and the recent presidential elections.  That is to say, this is an opposition that has indeed been able to mobilize on a mass scale in the past.  But if this past Saturday’s march had “taken” the highway, the results would have been even more pitiful than they looked on a four-lane city street in Chacaito.

Mario Silva, host of Chavista evening program La Hojilla, showed helicopter video footage of the march at its height, at which point it hardly filled a small city block (see the footage yourself here).  While this footage would suggest that fewer than 10,000 turned out, the Venezuelan opposition press and its international allies didn’t shy from claiming that “tens of thousands” (BBC, Reuters, AP) participated.  To the contrary, the only thing “warming up the streets” last Saturday, to adopt a colloquial expression, was the sweltering sun.

A Doomed Strategy

What explains this massive failure of the Venezuelan opposition to mobilize even a fraction of what they were able to mobilize in past years?  Clearly, given their emphasis on RCTV’s non-renewal, they felt it would be a hot-button issue: Why were they so wrong?  The answers lie in the nature of RCTV itself.  Firstly, while most surveys show a clear majority opposing the non-renewal of RCTV’s broadcast concession, they show an equally clear and comparable majority supporting Chávez and his government.  While this explains in part the opposition’s attraction to the issue (it’s not everyday that they get a chance to divide Chávez’s support base), it also explains their failure.

RCTV’s programming is best known for an emphasis in soap operas, or novelas, programs which are largely aimed, by virtue of their content and time-slot, at lower-middle-class segments of society.  The popularity of these novelas is largely responsible for the cross-spectrum support for RCTV.  But it is one thing to favor RCTV enough to support it in a poll.  It’s quite another to take to the streets alongside a largely discredited and reactionary opposition to actively defend it.  Moreover, given that these trashy and sexy novelas are a sort of guilty pleasure among some Chavistas, we might expect them to be much less likely to defend RCTV in public.

But this inability to divide Chavistas is not enough to explain the poor turnout at Saturday’s march, since the issue is further complicated by the opposition’s misjudgement of their own social base.  They seem to have overlooked a simple fact: most middle and upper-class Venezuelans don’t watch VHF programming at all!  With their televisions permanently tuned to cable or satellite broadcasts, many wealthy Venezuelans would hardly even notice if RCTV were to disappear from the public airwaves.  And since RCTV’s broadcasts on cable and satellite will almost certainly continue, there will be absolutely no effect on those wealthy Venezuelans who currently watch RCTV-produced novelas via third-party cable or satellite stations anyway.

When All Else Fails. . . .

Given their utter failure to mobilize significant support for the renewal of RCTV’s broadcast license, it has become clear that the opposition has effectively put all of their eggs in one (poorly-conceived) basket.  By tying their fortunes so tightly to those of RCTV, the opposition runs the risk of drifting further into irrelevance after the concession expires on Sunday.  Their only hope appears to be that the Supreme Court accept one of their appeals, which would possibly delay the expiration of RCTV’s concession.  But this, too, is very unlikely, as the court already dismissed one such appeal last week.

As a result, desperation has begun to set in, along with the threats of violence to which the Venezuelan opposition is so prone.  Speaking from Miami alongside Patricia Poleo (currently under investigation in Venezuela for planning the 2004 assassination of Danilo Anderson, the prosecutor investigating the bloodshed of April 11th 2002), “Little Granier” Rodríguez issued a thinly-veiled threat to President Chávez: “thinking of his personal security,” Rodríguez argues that the non-renewal of RCTV’s broadcast concession would “put the President at great risk.”

“Little Granier” continues: “Look in the mirror during Pinochet’s last days, look in the mirror of Peron’s widow, look in the mirror of Slobodan Milosevic, and I hope you aren’t crazy enough to institute the death penalty in Venezuela, because then you would need to see yourself in Saddam Hussein’s mirror, they all met their end for crimes against humanity.”  Coming from a station that broadcast, with some sympathy, the various defenses of Pinochet during the thankfully late dictator’s funeral, this statement is ironic at best and utterly cynical at worst.

Echoing this, Primero Justicia leader Julio Borges that the government could see blood in the streets if the decision is upheld.  Such threats go hand in hand with the ever-present threat of disruptive guarimbas (violent roadblocks) and even attacks on civilians to provoke a situation of chaos.  Últimas Noticias has reported that several have been arrested in recent days, charged with plotting destabilizing violence, and given that several submachine guns and sniper rifles were confiscated, we can’t be entirely sure that these were merely empty threats.  And this is an opposition that is quickly running out of options, so any and all strategies, including “strategies of tension,” will soon be on the table.

TVes: Democratizing the Media

If the opposition is good for anything at all (something which isn’t entirely clear), it’s good for radicalizing the Bolivarian Revolution.  This is because regardless of what may have been the government’s initial vision of the new channel 2, opposition efforts to attack the non-renewal of RCTV’s license as an undemocratic attack on free speech have forced the government to emphasize that the new TVes is all about the democratization of the airwaves.  In recent days, the future shape of TVes has become a bit clearer.  Lil Rodríguez, an Afro-Venezuelan woman, Últimas Noticias journalist, and host of Telesur’s cultural program Sones y Pasiones, was sworn in as director of the TVes Foundation.  As Rodríguez put it: “TVes will be born in a week with a name, with dreams, with a bit of the road behind it but an entire highway ahead.  She [TVes] is a woman, and she has her ovaries on straight.”

While there remains some question as to what autonomy TVes will enjoy in practice, Minister of Communication Willian Lara argues that, “we wouldn’t be so stupid as to make TVes a clone of [state-run] VTV, Vive. . . .”  In an effort to assure this, the law regulating TVes provides the directorial committee with a role which is fundamentally administrative: rather than actively producing programs, TVes is meant to be merely a conduit through which independent cultural production reaches the airwaves.

As Lil Rodríguez puts it, TVes will be “a space in which popular resistance will be what guides our destinies.”  Moreover, the importance of the new channel transcends a political undermining of the opposition and even the deepening of media democracy, as important as both of these are.  As Rodríguez describes it, TVes “will be a useful space for rescuing those values which other models of television always ignore, especially our Afro heritage,” in short, a weapon against the white Eurocentric self-image that has long prevailed in the media, devaluing Venezuelan history and culture and thereby justifying dependent development.

Should we believe the Venezuelan government that the new TVes will be an experiment in democratic, community-run media?  If we take our cue from those with the most to lose (i.e. those who suffer most from media monopolies), then the answer is yes.  This Sunday, mere hours before RCTV’s concession expires, the National Association of Free and Alternative Community Media (ANMCLA), representing hundreds of community media outlets, is convoking a march in defense of the non-renewal of RCTV’s license.  Deeming their position as “neither private, nor the state,” the march celebrates the non-renewal as “a step forward against golpismo [coup-ism] and toward the socialization of the media.”

But it is merely one step, and ANMCLA urges the government to go further: to expropriate the private media magnates of their transmitters and equipment, to hold coup-plotters responsible for their actions, and above all to move beyond statist conceptions of the public media.  As they argue: “The new channel 2 that will soon go on the air will surely be better, closer to the people, with less violence and perversion. . . .  But in order for it to really become the TV that we desire, for it to really be our television, it will be necessary to establish and exercise direct popular control over the channel, as well as over the media as a whole.”  While ANMCLA “will be on the streets to celebrate the execution of this measure [against RCTV] and the opening of new perspectives,” they see the gesture as “a point of departure for an entirely new era of struggles for the socialization of all the media, through popular protagonism, toward the construction of socialism.”

In all honesty, even a state-run station would be more “democratic” than one directed by the economic oligarchy that has ruled Venezuela for the past 500 years.  But the vision expressed by ANMCLA and others is infinitely more radical and more suited to the entirely new kind of socialism that is being built in Venezuela.

Do RCTV and Marcel Granier represent “freedom”?  The response from independent media producers is blunt: as a media activist from Caricuao’s Radio Perola, one of the ANMCLA signatories, puts it: “Freedom of expression is the expression of freedom, not the voice of privilege.”  The historic concession granted to RCTV is a direct expression of the economic privilege of Venezuelan and international elites, now so insistently and opportunistically masquerading as “free speech.”

As a recently-popularized slogan puts it: “RC Te Vas” — “RCTV, You’re Gone.”

George Ciccariello-Maher is a Ph.D. candidate in political theory at the University of California, Berkeley.  He lives in Caracas, and can be reached at gjcm(at)

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