Hugo Chavez is making it clear that his vision, and only his vision, will dominate in Venezuelan media. If any proof is required of his intention, one need only look at the crackdowns and threats that have been directed at private media outlets.
Criticism of Chavez comes with a price. A private station, RCTV, was recently shut down. The tactic used was to simply allow the license to expire, something Chavez has been threatening to do for years. Around 5,000 protesters who took the streets to oppose the RCTV shutdown, were subjected to tears gas and rubber bullets.
Chavez doesn't like to be criticized. Like a lot of authoritarian leaders he wants television to bask in his image and sing his praises. It seems most of the media in Venezuela is dutifully heading in the direction of becoming the mirror of El Presidente.
When Chavez was first elected back in 1999, there was only one government controlled TV channel in Venezuela. There are now four, including the international news channel Telesur and seven radio stations. Chavez even has his own show, Alo Presidente. His image is everywhere on the small screen. His own personal show can run for as long as five hours, making it more like a marathon homage session.
Part of the larger problem in Venezuela is the lack of any media outlets that come close to exercising impartiality when it comes to the nation's business. The country is polarized politically - much as if a fault line had divided the nation into two. Pro-Chavez and anti-Chavez factions dominate the scene, with little in-between. Citizens who want a more or less balanced view of what's going on in their own country have to resort to BBC world service, CNN or similar outlets.
Chavez seems to fancy himself as a bit of a cultural guru. He founded the Villa del Cine foundation in reaction to what he described as the “dictatorship of Hollywood". He has little understanding of culture freed from the influence of ideology. As with everything else he touches, culture is appropriated to serve the needs of the political agenda. The Argentinian business daily, Ambito Financiero, described Chavez as a sort of proletarian Louis XlV of France. The daily predicted that his reign will be marked by “a concentration of power without precedent in Venezuela". A famous phrase attributed to Louis XlV - “L'Etat, c'est moi" (I am the State) - could equally be applied to Chavez who sees himself as the personification of all things Venezuelan.
It would be a mistake to paint Chavez as a socialist revolutionary along early Castro lines as some on the right try to do. He's not averse to doing business with capitalists. Some of his personal favorites have had private media channels arranged for them - people such as whisky importer Arturo Sarmiento. Chavez also made a deal with Gustavo Cisneros, possibly the richest man in S. America, in order to get the TV channel Venevision up and running.
At root with Chavez it's as much about personality as anything else. He has a deep need to be loved and appreciated. Part of his issue with opposition media channels is the derision they heap on him in a very personal fashion. Some commentators have even been known to make fun of his dark skin and lowly class origins. So this media war in Venezuela also has a marked grudge element to it.
The last remaining private media outlet, Globovision, is on shaky ground. Chavez has accused it of attempting to incite his assassination. This is a bit far fetched. The evidence offered to back the claim, was footage aired by the station of the 1981 assassination attempt on Pope Paul ll, accompanied by the song “Have faith, this doesn't end here. " Chavez even went so far as to label the station “an enemy of the state". An attack on his person is clearly synonymous in his mind with an attack on the State.
The determined adoration some on the American left continue to express for Chavez is becoming increasingly odd. The reformer and idealist is gradually morphing into something we are all too familiar with in S. America, and even ‘new-style’ dictators are still dictators when they take the predictable route of strangling the voice of opposition.
Some observers claim Chavez has become paranoid and looks for conspiracies around every corner. He is certainly going the extra mile to silence his critics. If he keeps moving in the same direction, the “enemies of the state" will have to move underground, because as a spokesperson for Reporters Without Borders put it . . . “Besides Globovision, what media is left that can criticize Mr. Chavez?"
Aidan Maconachy resides in Ontario, Canada. He has a BA Hons and a BEd. He taught in the UK and Canada, and has been a contributor to a variety of magazines and newspapers over the years. You can visit his blog at http://aidanmaconachyblog.blogspot.com/