By Juan Forero
June 2, 2007
BOGOTA, Colombia, June 1 -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's decision to pull the plug on an anti-government television station has prompted days of protests and generated international condemnation, giving a weak and demoralized opposition a rallying cry after years of setbacks.
University students carrying flags and chanting, "We are students, not coup plotters," faced off Friday with riot police at Caracas's Andres Bello Catholic University. Nearly 200 protesters have been arrested since Sunday, when Radio Caracas Television, or RCTV, aired its last broadcast after 54 year
Authorities here say that RCTV supported a coup that dislodged Chávez for two days in 2002 and consistently violated a range of telecommunications regulations, leading the government not to renew its broadcast license when it expired.
But press freedom groups note that the station has not been officially sanctioned, nor have its owners or managers been charged with conspiracy against the state. Other private stations that were harshly anti-Chávez but have toned down critical coverage avoided the same fate, as communications Minister William Lara readily acknowledged in an interview broadcast Friday on CNN's Spanish-language service.
Polls show that 65 to 80 percent of Venezuelan respondents disagreed with the government's decision to end RCTV's concession, though many were simply upset that they wouldn't be able to see some of their favorite soap operas.
The widespread dissatisfaction has reenergized an opposition movement that lost much of its momentum after its efforts to recall Chávez were defeated in 2004 and after its decision to boycott parliamentary elections in 2005 left it without representation in the National Assembly.
"This has been politically disastrous for Chávez, domestically and internationally," Teodoro Petkoff, a newspaper editor in Caracas who believes Chávez's government is becoming increasingly autocratic, said by telephone from Caracas. "He's found nothing but condemnation all over the world."
Manuel Rosales, a governor and opposition leader who lost to Chávez in December's presidential election, has called on Venezuelans to hit the streets and protest what he has called a dictatorial move. "We'll give the last breath of our lives to be sure Venezuela doesn't lose its freedoms," he told reporters this week.
While condemnation from the Bush administration, an ideological foe of Venezuela, was expected, criticism has come from many quarters around the world, some of them surprising.
Spain's Socialist government, in a joint declaration with the United States, called Friday for Chávez to renew RCTV's license. The European Parliament voiced concern, and Brazil's Senate passed a resolution calling on Chávez to reconsider, drawing a sharp rebuke from the Venezuelan leader.
"A head of state who doesn't know how to live with democratic manifestation, such as that of the Brazilian Senate, is probably against democracy," the president of that body, Renan Calheiros, said in response.
Reporters Without Borders, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, the Chilean Senate and the Atlanta-based Carter Center have said freedom of expression could be in peril in Venezuela. "I think this weakens the Chávez government's argument that it furthers free expression," said Carlos Lauria, who has studied the case for the Committee to Protect Journalists. "It debilitates that argument."
The criticism has prompted a full-scale diplomatic offensive by the Venezuelan government.
In the United States, Venezuelan Ambassador Bernardo Alvarez told CNN that the RCTV workers would be able to find other jobs. Other government representatives stressed repeatedly that the non-renewal was little more than a bureaucratic measure.
In an interview with Colombia's Caracol Radio on Thursday, Roy Chaderton, a former Venezuelan foreign minister who serves as a special envoy, argued that RCTV remained a danger to Chávez's government.
Noting that the station recently aired "Feast of the Goat," a film based on the novel by Mario Vargas Llosa about a tyrannical dictator and the uprising against him, Chaderton said the intention was to "cultivate" the idea of assassinating Chávez as a solution to Venezuela's problems.
Chávez, speaking Thursday, warned that "international rightist, extreme-rightist and fascist movements are attacking Venezuela from everywhere -- from Europe, the United States, Brasilia." That theme -- that Chávez is in mortal danger -- is constant in Venezuela, and political analysts say it is used to manipulate public opinion.
Michael Shifter, a senior analyst for the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington policy group that closely follows Venezuela, said he didn't think it would get much traction this time.
"All of his previous attacks were on the corrupt capitalists, but this goes way beyond that and it touches on Venezuela's cultural identity," Shifter said of Chávez. "It's very hard for him to talk of the rancid oligarchy here. These are university students protesting, not part of the old order.
Still, Venezuela's government seems intent on taking harsh action against its critics. The government has announced that it has begun a legal fight against Globovision, a 24-hour news cable station that is the lone dissenting TV outlet in the country now that RCTV is only on the Internet.
Globovision is providing highly critical coverage in the wake of the RCTV closing. Lara, the communications minister, said the government would investigate after the station broadcast images of the 1981 assassination attempt against Pope John Paul II. Officials said that was designed to spur a plot against the Venezuelan leader.
Chávez later publicly warned the station, saying, "I recommend that you take a tranquilizer, that you take it easy, because if not, I'm going to make you take it easy."
José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director of the New York-based group Human Rights Watch, said Venezuelan government officials "just don't get it."
"They think that they're entitled to keep politicizing this issue," he said. "I don't think they understand the concept of a free media and the respect it requires in an open society."