A recent Human Rights Watch report, which was harshly criticized by supporters of Venezuela’s ‘Bolivarian Revolution’, said that “there are few obvious limits on free expression in Venezuela. The country’s print and audiovisual media operate without restrictions.” Two months after the report was published, on July 14, one of the country’s audiovisual media outlets came up against a rather serious restriction-it was shut down and its equipment confiscated. The outlet in question is called CatiaTV, but it was not shut down by the Chavez government but by the mayor of Caracas, Alfredo Pena, who is an opponent of Chavez.
CatiaTV was an experiment in genuine community television. It was started by a group of people in Catia, a vast and extremely poor borough of Caracas, who thought to film one of the community’s events to show it to the community. It gave poor people the opportunity to make their own programs, about themselves, for themselves. In April 2002, when the coup against the Chavez government took place, workers in CatiaTV were instrumental in helping to get the state television channel, Channel 8, back online, breaking the monopoly of misinformation of the private television networks and facilitating the reversal of the coup.
Reporters Without Borders (which did protest against the closing of CatiaTV), demonstrating a disappointing lack of understanding of the Venezuelan media situation, said that reporters there were “caught between an authoritarian president and an intolerant media.” The private networks are advocates of a coup, call supporters of Chavez ‘monkeys’, and distort information to a remarkable degree. But the people can’t rely solely on the state media. This is exactly what makes community media like CatiaTV so important. It is also why Alfredo Pena shut it down.
Who is Alfredo Pena? The mayor of Greater Caracas was a supporter of Chavez and had been a journalist himself (his email, should you want to write him and tell him to give CatiaTV their transmitter back, is [email protected]). But his more recent fame has come from his use of the Policia Metropolitana in Caracas. There is evidence that Pena’s police were instrumental in the coup, murdering Chavistas on April 11 2002 in actions that were blamed on the government and used to justify the coup. A reporter for the Narconews Bulletin, Alex Main, describes some of the actions of this police force during the coup in April 2002:
“The PM played their first major political role on April 11th of this year  when they accompanied an illegal opposition march on Miraflores presidential palace that produced a cloud-cover of chaos allowing a media-driven coup d’etat to take place. That afternoon, Venezuelan commercial television showed images of a few pro-government demonstrators who, for several minutes, fired automatic pistols over the railing of the Puente Llaguno bridge which overlooks the Avenida Baraldt, a main artery that leads towards Miraflores. Private Venezuelan television channels showed these images over and over while a commentator explained that the shooters were assassins who were deliberately killing “peaceful” demonstrators in the opposition march. What these TV channels failed to show their viewers was the wider-angle camera shots that allowed one to observe that other individuals on the bridge were ducking for cover and were quite obviously being shot at by an unseen aggressor.
“The unseen aggressor, as the pictures and videos of Venezuelan independent media were to reveal, was none other than the Policia Metropolitana.” (1)
Pena’s police continue to play this role. During Venezuela’s ‘National Strike’ in January 2003, the Policia Metropolitana killed two more Chavistas, who the media then claimed were members of the opposition. (2)
Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez has wondered publicly what the response would have been had he shut down a commercial television station. The international media, and the United States, might have had more to say had it been one of the TV stations of the wealthy shut down by President Chavez, instead of a station of the poor shut down by mayor Pena.
Even as they struggle to try to defend CatiaTV, the ‘Bolivarians’ are on the offensive in other parts of the country. A different Venezuelan mayor has found himself on the side of the workers in Venezuela’s conflict. The mayor of the town of Villa de Cura in Aragua, Estefano Magione, supported the seizure of a Pepsi-Cola bottling plant by its workers on July 9. The workers seized the plant to prevent what they believed was an impending closure. “The action of the workers was justified, given the company’s behaviourâ€¦ we had tried to do everything possible to help the company,” the mayor said. “We offered to help them with distributionâ€¦ but they refusedâ€¦ for 3 years they have not paid taxes, not collaborated with the municipality, stolen the water of Villa de Cura and continually harmed the interests of the workers. We’ve been tolerant because we didn’t want them to close the plant. What else do they want? It’s impossible to be any more tolerant.”
Owned by one of Venezuela’s wealthiest families, Pepsi was an active player in the coup and in ‘National Strike’ in December and January, in which the wealthy of the country tried to oust the Chavez government by locking out workers and stopping the economy (3) The Pepsi plant in Villa de Cura is reported to have destroyed 600,000 cases of Pepsi during the ‘strike’.
Soft drink bottling is an arena of social struggle in Venezuela’s neighbour, Colombia, as well, where the food worker’s union SINALTRAINAL has called for an international boycott of Coca-Cola. In recent years, 8 workers have been killed, 1 driven to suicide, 2 exiled, 48 fired, 150 imprisoned under false pretenses, and 70 threatened with death, at Coca-Cola bottling plants who use paramilitary death squads to destroy efforts at unionization. (4)
As Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe Velez continues to unleash violence on Colombian people in the name of a policy he calls ‘democratic security’, the Venezuelan ‘opposition’ (a group that includes free speech supporters like Alfredo Pena) is trying to organize a referendum to oust Venezuela’s President Chavez. Chavez’s government will try to argue that the referendum should not take place for procedural reasons, and will likely try to use these arguments to delay or even prevent the referendum. If the ‘opposition’s record is any guide, they will fight even dirtier. (5) Carlos Andres Perez, former President of Venezuela who is in hiding in the Dominican Republic from multi-million dollar corruption charges, has demonstrated the opposition’s democratic credentials by stating that ” I consider that the solution to our dramatic crisis is to pass power first to a civilian-military junta for a period of two years with the objective to return Venezuela to democratic rule.”
It’s to be hoped that Venezuelans continue to succeed in their struggle against the kind of ‘democracy’ on offer by the likes of Alfredo Pena and Carlos Andres Perez.
1) See Narconews: http://www.narconews.com/Issue26/article541.html. Some of the evidence Main referring to is summarized in several articles of this pro-government website, including: (http://www.aporrea.org/dameverbo.php?docid=8595) One of the journalists who took some of the famous footage, Luis Alfonso Fernandez, later discussed some of the ways the video was manipulated.
2) Diana Valentine reported on this for ZNet: http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=45&ItemID=2855
3) See Podur, ‘Venezuela’s National Strike’, on ZNet:http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=45&ItemID=2729
4) See Andy Higginbottom, ‘Boycott Coke!’, on ZNet: http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=9&ItemID=3937
5) See Chris Kerr, ‘The Next Battle for Venezuela’, on ZNet: http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=20&ItemID=3965