New York Times
July 5, 2007
CARACAS, Venezuela, July 4 — Three years ago, the media mogul Gustavo A. Cisneros was a leader of Venezuela's opposition and his television network, Venevisión, regularly lambasted President Hugo Chávez.
So antagonistic were relations that Mr. Chávez accused him of conspiring to topple him. Government agents raided Mr. Cisneros's ranch, fishing camp and offices.
The tensions were resolved only after former President Jimmy Carter, a longtime friend of Mr. Cisneros, brokered a meeting between the men in 2004 before a referendum to determine whether President Chávez should be recalled from office.
Today, as more details of that encounter emerge, Mr. Cisneros, who sits at the helm of a family fortune estimated at $6 billion, has become a target of the same opposition he once championed. Venevisión, critics say, is now positioned to benefit from Mr. Chávez's recent decision to push the station's main rival, RCTV, off the public airwaves.
Mr. Cisneros, 62, in a rare interview here, bridled at such charges. "If you go off the air, then democracy loses," he said, defending his reconciliation with Mr. Chávez and pointing to fears that Venevisión could yet suffer the same fate as RCTV, which was forced to stop broadcasting in late May.
"We decided that we needed to pull through," said Mr. Cisneros, citing advice on the matter from Carlos Fuentes, the Mexican writer, who is an outspoken critic of Mr. Chávez. "And the way to pull through was to say, 'Enough, we can't be part of the story or play a role in politics but we have to report the story every day.' "
Gone, Mr. Cisneros said, was Venevisión's "Fox News approach." Executives replaced morning talk shows with astrology programs and gave priority to nightly soap operas over critical news programs.
By the time of the presidential election last December, the shift was an about-face from Venevisión's previous coverage. Venevisión devoted 84 percent of its political coverage to Mr. Chávez's positions and only 16 percent to the opposition, according to a European Union report on the elections.
That 2004 meeting, as well as the subsequent softening of Venevisión's coverage of Mr. Chávez, has been interpreted by critics of both the president and the media mogul as an example of how the moneyed elite bends to Mr. Chávez's will.
Mr. Chávez, who has built an array of state-controlled broadcasters in the last three years, crows at such changes. Referring recently to the June 2004 meeting with Mr. Cisneros, Mr. Chávez boasted of Mr. Cisneros's acquiescence to his authority.
"He wore a tie and told me, 'I put the tie on because I want to tell you that I recognize you as president of my country,' " Mr. Chávez said in comments broadcast on Teves, the new state-owned broadcaster that has taken over RCTV's signal.
Both men deny that any deal was reached. But what else happened at the meeting, which lasted about four hours and was held at Fort Tiuna, a military garrison here, has been shrouded in mystery.
A spokeswoman at the Carter Center in Georgia said Mr. Carter was unable to comment on the meeting, which he mediated after being flown to Caracas on Mr. Cisneros's plane.
Jennifer McCoy, director of the Americas program at the Carter Center, said the meeting was part of a broader effort by Mr. Carter to ease tension between Mr. Chávez and private media groups
Mr. Carter put Mr. Chávez at ease by discussing their shared military background, according to people briefed on the meeting. (Mr. Carter had attended the United States Naval Academy; Mr. Chávez is a former lieutenant colonel in the Venezuelan Army.)
At the meeting, according to Mr. Cisneros, Mr. Chávez compared his social programs to those of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Mr. Chávez, he said, batted away the assertion that the political climate in 2004 was marked by violence and attacks against reporters and media owners. The only television channel that had been shut down, he said, was the state broadcaster, during the 2002 coup that he had previously accused Mr. Cisneros of backing, a claim Mr. Cisneros denies.
After the meeting, the referendum in August 2004 did not lead to a recall of the president, enabling him to tighten his hold on political institutions and the media. Critics see Venevisión's subsequent shift in editorial policy as part of a wider trend to avoid confronting Mr. Chávez.
"Some companies bow to authoritarian regimes," said Marcel Granier, the president of RCTV, which has been reduced to airing its broadcasts on YouTube in recent weeks. "This happened in Germany with the Krupps, Bayers and Thyssens."
In recent comments about the meeting, the president said Mr. Cisneros, whose other companies range from breweries to the Leones baseball team in Caracas, understood he could coexist with the socialist-inspired transformation of society that Mr. Chavez says he wants.
"There are others who furiously launch themselves in attempts to overthrow a government," Mr. Chávez said.
As Mr. Chávez acknowledged, Mr. Cisneros's strategy at Venevisión, a national network developed in the 1960s in a partnership with ABC by Mr. Cisneros's father, has uncovered rifts within a once cloistered elite that is being shaken by Mr. Chávez's policies.
For instance, Mr. Cisneros and Mr. Granier are married to cousins, descendants of William H. Phelps, an American businessman and ornithologist who settled in Venezuela more than a century ago.
But Mr. Cisneros and Mr. Granier rarely speak to each other now, both men said in interviews. They have pursued different strategies as Mr. Cisneros pushed into markets in the United States and Latin America while Mr. Granier focused on growing RCTV in Venezuela.
Still, Mr. Cisneros, who has moved his family outside Venezuela and lives mainly at homes in New York, Spain and the Dominican Republic, rejected claims that Venevisión stood to benefit from luring advertisers lost by RCTV.
Pointing to laws that limit the advertising networks can sell, Mr. Cisneros said he expected next year's revenue to climb no more than 5 to 6 percent, after accounting for annual inflation of more than 20 percent.
"There's no advantage to us whatsoever in having RCTV go away," said Mr. Cisneros. "Having President Chávez as our main television competitor is not in our interest."
Mr. Cisneros said Venezuela's president maintained leverage over private media groups, including Venevisión.
Mr. Cisneros's case in point: the government renewed Venevisión's license in May for only five years, setting it to expire before Mr. Chávez's third term as president ends in 2012.