May 8, 2007
A parade of rowdy and at times hysterical protesters yelled and whistled their way through central Caracas recently in a desperate attempt to be heard before Venezuela’s oldest and most popular television channel is silenced forever.
Accused by President Hugo Chávez of supporting a coup that briefly overthrew him in 2002 and of broadcasting consistently biased news, he refuses to renew Radio Caracas Television’s licence when it expires on May 27.
“It is revenge,” said Bere–nice Gomez, who presents a gossip programme on RCTV. The opposition, as well as or–ganisations such as the In–ter-American Human Rights Co–mmission and Reporters With–out Borders, have rallied behind RCTV’s cause. But it is a losing battle.
“Forget it. It’s over,” as–sured Mr Chávez on his own television show, Hello President, leaving little room for doubt that RCTV’s 53 years of broadcasting news, game shows and hammy soap operas will soon come to an end. A “public service” channel is planned to replace it.
While Mr Chávez’s opponents might be expected to defend RCTV, sympathisers of his socialist project also question the move. Margarita López Maya, an academic, says it typifies the “intolerance” of certain aspects of his government.
No fan of what she calls a “dreadful” channel, Ms Ló–pez Maya worries that without RCTV, pro-government media will have virtual control of the airwaves. Only Globovisión, whose licence is not up for renewal, re-mains openly critical of the government, now that other channels have markedly toned down their coverage – allegedly, under duress.
Mr Chávez’s traditional opponents have lost considerable ground since he was first elected in 1998. A series of wrong-headed strategies have damaged the opposition’s credibility, including an attempted coup, shutting down the oil industry and boycotting elections in the National Assembly, leaving it entirely under government control. But while Mr Chávez’s landslide victory in December has left the opposition weakened, the resulting enhancement of presidential power is also alienating parts of Mr Chávez’s own political coalition.
Members of the pro-government party Podemos – the most significant group outside Mr Chávez’s own Fifth Republic Movement – have expressed doubts about the president’s plans to unite the various pro-government parties into a single “revolutionary” party, dubbed the Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). “Since the very beginning we have been against the way in which it is being formed,” Ricardo Gutiérrez, vice-president of Podemos, said.
While he says that Podemos in theory favours a unified party, he added: “We want the right to dissent when we consider that there are good reasons to do so.”
When Ramón Martínez, the Podemos governor of Sucre state, called the PSUV “sectarian”, he provoked a characteristically fiery re–sponse from Mr Chávez.
“Go and join the opposition. I don’t want you here with us, I don’t accept your support. You are a liar, a charlatan, a counter-revolutionary,” he said.
Steve Ellner, a leftwing political scientist at the University of the East in Venezuela, said that such intolerance was leaving national politics without a middle ground. “Chávez is very polarising. He does not tolerate friendly criticism, which alienates potential friends,” he said. “If the opposition returns to power, everything that Chávez has done will be undone. So it could be that within the Chávez camp there is a desire to develop a new opposition that supports the basic structures they have been creating.”
Behind the rhetoric about in–clusivity, Mr Chávez’s mass movement is turning into an increasingly centralising project, says Dan Hellinger, a Venezuela specialist at Webster University in Georgia. “Chávez’s objectives stem from his own mistrust of the immediate political forces around him, so he is trying to build an alternative system that functions through the grass roots. In effect, though, it is being implemented from above,” he said.