June 15, 2007
After Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez turned the popular television station RCTV into yet another government-controlled outlet on May 27, an unusual combination of students, journalists and television stars braved tear gas, fire hoses and rubber bullets to gather in the streets in a show of opposition. The student protests are ongoing, although somewhat smaller. For many students, this is a first entrance into political activism, and it seems to be based more on principle than politics. The students haven't aligned with opposition politicians, although some Venezuelan officials have accused them of doing so. Anger at the closing of RCTV was not simply the province of the network's staff, journalists and students. RCTV was Venezuela's most popular network, and an overwhelming number of Venezuelans oppose its closing.
Mr. Chavez, however, was undeterred. He disparaged the students and threatened another private television station after it aired coverage of the protests. His decision, it quickly became clear, was to meet opposition with even more oppressive controls.
The response in Venezuela was clamorous; the criticism from several other countries was no less forceful. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called it "an issue between Venezuela and democratic principles." En route to Panama this week, she told reporters that "when you start closing down television stations because they express opposition to the leadership... that is, in fact, a strong move against democracy." The Senate also denounced the closure of RCTV in a bill passed with bipartisan support. The president of the European Commission called it "a step backwards"; the European Parliament passed a resolution condemning Mr. Chavez's move.
Nongovernmental groups were more strident. Reporters Without Borders, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists all offered harsh censure. But Mr. Chavez proved again his ability to shrug off this kind of international attention, dismissing the criticism and thumbing his nose at U.S. admonishment.
Criticism from other Latin American leaders may have been harder to shrug off, but none of the governments of three largest countries in the region -- Brazil, Mexico and Argentina -- took a stand against the clear deterioration of democracy. Nor did the Organization of American States, which wrapped up a meeting of its general assembly this week with a generic and tepid statement in support of freedom of the press that failed to make mention of either Venezuela or RCTV. The United States asked the OAS to investigate; Mr. Chavez declined, and the investigation stopped before it started.
In the context of Latin America's sordid history of dictatorships and political repression -- and the strong growth in recent years in the number of countries with left-of-center governments that have embraced political and economic liberalization -- it's disappointing that some leaders are reacting to the return of the authoritarian left so blithely. "The game is clear," wrote one commentator in the leading liberal paper El Nacional, "Democracy erodes before our eyes." That other Latin American leaders would let it pass without comment is shameful.