Caracas’s Barrio Newswire




H

igh
above the broad avenues and glass skyscrapers of the Venezuelan
capital, Petare rests on a knife’s edge. A shantytown—recently
renamed the United Republic of Petare by its 1,500 or so residents—Petare
lies on one of the hills overlooking east Caracas. The house-sized
scars along the steep, unpaved road are grim reminders of the mudslides
that every year claim uncounted lives: uncounted because until recently
in Venezuela, few people have ever seen any reason to count the
people that live in these neighborhoods.  


The
barrio television network Catia TVe is filming a segment in Petare.
(Catia is one of Caracas’s oldest and largest ghettoes, and
“Ve” is the third-person conjugation of the Spanish verb
“to see”; the station’s punning name therefore translates
as “Catia sees you.”). The crew uses one microphone and
two digital camcorders to interview residents, children, and activists
from the neighborhood assembly. No Catia TVe personality ever appears
onscreen in this segment. In fact, there are no Catia TVe “personalities”
in the tradition of the suit-jacketed, hair-gelled evening-news
correspondent. Its only gesture to the conventional format of television
news is a bulky microphone emblazoned with the station’s logo. 


This
episode will be called “Cayapa in the Community”—
cayapa roughly means any kind of collective work and it reflects
one of the station’s main operating principles. Catia TVe’s
young engineer, Gabriel Gil—recently expelled from Venezuela’s
biggest university for leading student strikes against tuition increases—repeats
its slogan, “Don’t watch television, make television.
The idea is that the communities make television and they communicate
with themselves this way, through the neighborhood broadcaster.
It’s not one person speaking to everybody else, like in the
commercial news, or the product of one leader who puts out a single
line for every issue,” as in party-affiliated press. 


In
this and other editions of Catia TVe, there are no slick graphic
cues, no superficial conclusions. Interviewers repeatedly ask the
kind of questions that do not anticipate specific answers: What
is the biggest problem here? Do you have clean water? What do you
do when it rains? How many of your children attend school? What
are your dreams? 



Everything
Is Possible 



E

dgar
Barrios, a local assembly leader, ushered the TV crew around the
area. He smiled and announced on camera, “I think my neighborhood
is beautiful, lovely, impeccable, and above all, organized.”
Since they are officially categorized as temporary “invasions”
of public land, few of Caracas’s slum areas receive any city
services, so water and electricity are illegally pilfered from the
metropolitan grid. In spite of these problems, Barrios said, “We
have a lot of hope for the government, and we need [building] materials
more than anything. But the people will do it. Everything is possible.
Everything has a solution.” 


According
to the station’s directors, 70 percent of the programming aired
by Catia TVe, in its daily 5-hour slot on a UHF station limited
to west Caracas or on its weekly appearances on national state television,
is produced by what it calls Community Teams of Independent Audiovisual
Production, known by the Spanish acronym, ECPAIs. The rest of the
network’s material is largely produced by a core group of journalists
and technicians, some of whom draw modest salaries from the station.
The ECPAIs are volunteer production teams who use Catia TVe’s
equipment and expertise—and attend the station’s video-making
workshops—to make everything from documentaries on local history
and proper garbage disposal to short fictional films and regular
shows like “AmbienTV,” an interview program hosted by
Catia impresario Luis Sálazar. Sálazar argues that shows
like his have a purpose distinct from that of commercial media:
“The community media has a special sensitivity to, essentially,
the daily life of the people. It has a social, community function.” 


The
ECPAIs regularly circulate in and out of the station’s headquarters
in the 23 de Enero district of west Caracas. The teams are only
loosely organized by the central Catia TVe staff, which edits, approves,
and in about 30 percent of the cases, also produces material for
broadcast and otherwise functions as a kind of nodal point for the
work of the various teams. Their purpose, according to Catia TVe
managing director Ricardo Márquez, “is to grab people
from the community who have no idea how to write a script, have
no idea how to work a camera, have no idea how to stage a scene
and to teach them all the theoretical and practical tools to make
a show.” 


Catia
TVe’s ambitions extend beyond distributing cameras to local
residents, according to Márquez. “It’s about changing
[the country’s] audiovisual discourse as well,” he says. 



Bolivarian
Revolution 



P

oor
and working-class urban neighborhoods like Petare and 23 de Enero—built
and populated over the years by rural migrants and more recently
Colombian refugees and other Latin American immigrants—form
the base of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s ambitious
and contentious plan to remake the nation in the image of its liberator
Simon Bolívar. Since a failed coup attempt in 2002 and a series
of opposition-led strikes and business lockouts, Venezuelan society
has become starkly polarized along class lines. In a nation where
at least 85 percent of the population lives in cities, Caracas is
the flashpoint of the national crisis. Residents of the predominantly
working-class west generally support the leftist president and his
“Bolivarian revolution,” with the middle- and upper-class
east belonging to the political opposition’s camp. 


In
this climate, the political allegiances of the national news media
are unmistakable. The principal private television networks—including
Venevision, owned by billionaire Gustavo Cisneros, the Rupert Murdoch
of the Americas— cast their lot with the opposition, and offer
a stridently anti-Chavez editorial line and a regular cycle of pro-opposition
political commercials. The programming is unapol- ogetically partisan. 


The
private news media thus occupies the somewhat unusual position of
activist political opposition to, and total independence from, the
sitting national government, whose representatives almost never
appear on private television. The print media ranges from the jingoism
of the daily

2001

to the demure, metropolitan elitism of

El Universal

, the national paper of record, and

Ultimas
Noticias

, a national tabloid with the most liberal reporting
in the country and the least politicized editorial agenda (which
does not say a great deal). In response, the government has recently
begun breaking into prime-time network programming with brief spots
that rather clumsily celebrate government triumphs in agriculture,
urban reform, or health care. Media reform legislation like the
controversial “Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television”
has been condemned as an affront to free speech by both the Venezuelan
opposition and Human Rights Watch, although it is still unclear
what enforcement procedures the new law would allow, and HRW’s
statement on the law was careful to praise the current absence of
any government censorship in Venezuela.





Catia
TVe enjoys the political support of the national government (which
it returns in kind) and would not be on the air without a media
deregulation law passed by the Chávez administration in 2001.
The measure widely liberalized local and non-profit access to radio
and television licenses, giving Venezuela some of the most open
airwaves in the world. In so doing, the law also allowed pro-government
and left-leaning journalists access to airtime. (Under the law,
anyone, regardless of political affiliation, may apply for a broadcast
license. Few, if any, opposition groups have yet felt the need to
organize neighborhood radio stations, however.) 


Catia
TVe’s former executive director, Blanca Eekhout, a native of
the country’s central plains who earned a film studies degree
from the Central University of Venezuela, once interviewed Chavez
on his weekly “Alo Presidente” TV show and the president
has expressed his personal support for the station. Eekhout was
recently chosen to head the new government- sponsored station Visión
Venezuela Televisión (Vive TV), apparently an attempt to incorporate
some of the participatory values of community television into a
national channel. Catia TVe officials, however, claim that they
receive no financial support from the Administration besides grants
from the national communications ministry, CONATEL. But the station
makes no secret of its place on the left of the Venezuelan political
spectrum and every member of the its staff declares their general
support for “el proceso,” the combination of government
political reforms and the barrio militancy spurred by Chavez’s
presidency. Jesús Suárez, a music conservatory student
from Catia who learned about the station through one of its ECPAI
workshops, says, “I am with this process. I like this process.”
He adds, however, that “I don’t consider myself a chavista,
because Chavez is Chavez, and I am me. He can be wrong. But he does
good things, in comparison with other groups—or rather, with
the other group.” 



Barrio
Newswire 



A

lthough
Catia TVe owes a great deal to the Chávez presidency, it cites
its own origins ten years earlier in Caracas’s Manicomio barrio,
one of the city’s oldest, where a small group of residents
founded the Simon Rodriguez de Manicomio Casa de Cultura. The neighborhood,
named for the insane asylum that once stood there, was a political
and commercial center of Caracas in the colonial period, when the
city lay along the main trade route to the Caribbean coast. 


In
February 1989, an uprising known as the Caracazo engulfed the poor
districts and later the entire capital after the government of Carlos

Andrés Pérez
introduced


neoliberal
economic reforms that doubled bus fares overnight. Several days
of fierce military repression of the insurgent barrios followed,
leaving at least several hundred dead. It is difficult to overstate
the importance of the Caracazo in the memories of Chávez supporters—it
is, as one activist told me, “Year Zero” of the Bolivarian
Revolution. 


Recalling
the 1989 violence, Eekhout charges that the commercial media at
once endorsed the military’s repressive tactics and ignored
the widespread killings in west Caracas. For Eekhout, “there
was a rupture not only with the government, but there was a break
with the media because the media that always tried to pass themselves
off as mediators took an absolutely emphatic position in defense
of the system—and what’s more, of legitimizing the most
violent acts of repression against an unarmed population that the
country had lived through in its history. So from there emerged
most strongly the necessity to have your own media, your own image.” 


The
Casa de Cultura soon moved into a government-run grocery store looted
and abandoned after rioting in the area. One of the center’s
first projects was a film club that screened Latin American feature
films on a donated 16-mm projector. When west Caracas’s municipal
government (led at the time by Aristobulo Isturis, now the national
Minister of Education) donated a video camera to the club, it began
to make its own movies. Eekhout, one of the film club’s co-founders,
recalls that immediately, “We went out and filmed on the street,
on the corner, in the bodega, the neighborhood dog—everybody.
Then this material was shown and the impact was astonishing.



Going to see
those films was very important, but when they started to see themselves,
more and more people started to come, and they came back to see
the same thing thousands of times and, well, the camera was turned
into an extraordinary tool.” The Manicomio collective shortly
began distributing these videos to other community centers across
the city, she says, “like an itinerant barrio newswire on VHS.” 


Technical
improvements aside, Catia TVe’s current programming has not
wavered much from these early videos’ basic intention—to
consider the history, politics, and daily life of west Caracas from
the perspective of its residents. Eekhout also describes the station
as a kind of testimonial archive for those excluded from the life
of the capital, which suffers in her view from a collective “urban
amnesia” regarding its poorest communities. “The recuperation
of memory,” she says, “is made more important by the threat
of uprooting that the barrios face at any moment, and precisely
because they are victims of the plunder of the peasant lands and
displacement there—and then they are not accepted as citizens
in the city. So to recover this history and to vindicate the fact
of their having arrived on this land [in Caracas] was and is very
important.” 


The
program on the Petare shantytown, “Cayapa in the Community,”
aired on the national government channel’s weekly “Things
My People Say” program. For one Saturday morning, Petare found
its way into living rooms throughout the immense territory of the
Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. For José Gomez, a Catia TVe
cameraperson in his mid-20s, this is an unprecedented phenomenon:
“In the commercial media,” he says, “[the poor] are
invisible, they don’t exist. And when they do exist, they are
portrayed as the mob, the horde, ‘the blacks.’ What has
happened in Venezuela for the past 40 years is that the poor communities
have been nothing more than an object of the news media.” 


At
one of Catia TVe’s weekly open meetings, where community residents
are encouraged to contribute new program ideas, a middle-aged man
from Catia proposed a show profiling the professionals, doctors,
and lawyers in his neighborhood, to counteract the mainstream image
of criminality and idleness. In rejecting his proposal, Eekhout
politely told him, “the camera cannot solve your problems.”
Catia TVe insists that the community media be a product of the community
being depicted—and that the newscaster’s video camera
has no authority of its own, independent of its operator. Catia
TVe journalism, is not just an exercise in making better images,
in showing the “good side” of the barrio, but in what
one ECPAI member called “social transformation.” Until
now, Márquez says, “Television has only taught us to think
about the lottery, horse races, and beauty queens.” The broadcasts
are, in effect, an instrument for consciousness-raising, to enact
the “cultural transformation” that he believes is necessary
for political changes to take hold. 


In
July 2003, Catia TVe’s broadcast equipment was seized during
a police raid on its transmission station, located in a public hospital
near Manicomio. The raid, ordered by the anti-Chavez mayor of Caracas,
Alfredo Peña, was widely condemned as illegal censorship abroad
and even in some Venezuelan papers, which considered the move hypocritical
at a time when the opposition was loudly campaigning against the
government’s Law of Social Responsibility. Almost immediately,
the NGO Reporters Without Borders condemned Peña’s actions.
However, José Miguel Vivanco, the Peruvian director of the
Human Rights Watch Americas division, who had issued a strong criticism
of the Law of Social Responsibility days earlier, failed to make
a statement until after Peña had rescinded his order over a
week later. (Referring to a Peruvian television station recently
shut by its government,

Ultimas Noticias

columnist Eleazar
Díaz Rangel wryly remarked, “We hope that Vivanco takes
a position against the closing of Panamericana TV by the Toledo
government before it reopens.”) 


A
phrase uttered constantly by almost everyone at Catia TVe, “tomar
la palabra,” is difficult to translate: it literally means
“take the word,” but it can only be rendered in English
metaphorically, as in “take the floor.” The distinction
is significant. Márquez sees the continuing threats against
the station this way: “Catia TVe strives to ‘give the
floor’ to all those who never had the opportunity to take the
floor. And this bothers some people a lot.”







 





J. P. Leary is
a PhD student in Comparative Literature at New York University.