The fate of the only media company in Venezuela to be taken over by its workers now rests in the hands of President Hugo Chávez and his administration.
Pushed to the wall by their employers’ decision to go out of business—after they’d gone for four months without pay—the workers at two small daily newspapers published in Mérida did the only thing they could think of. Seventeen staff members at Cambio de Siglo and Diario El Vigía took over their workplace Oct 4. They hung a homemade banner proclaiming “Control Obrero” (worker-run) from the second-floor of the papers’ offices on Ave. 5 in the center of the city, and began an occupation that has persisted day and night since. In late November, they began putting out weekly combined editions of the two newspapers.
Venezuela has worker-run businesses in many sectors, but this action is “unprecedented,” according to Hugo Peña of the National Workers’ Union (Unete), one of Venezuela’s trade union federations. “There are no other cases of a group of workers deciding to take control of a media outlet,” said Peña, Unete coordinator for Mérida.
Almost all the workers at Cambio de Siglo /Diario El Vigía insist they do not want to see their action “politicized” and used by the opposition and the international press to fuel anti-Chávez sentiment. They simply want to see their rights respected, and get the back pay and benefits due them.
“We took the initiative to make our situation known,” said copy editor Kira Fuentes. “We want people to support us as workers and as human beings who have gone through a lot by not being paid, and we deserve to have our rights respected.”
Nevertheless, under their control the workers have transformed Cambio de Siglo/DiarioEl Vigia from organs of the opposition into a single responsible community paper that presents a full range of local, state and national news and sports, along with commentary sympathetic to the Bolivarian process.
“As a daily, Cambio de Siglo was a source of information against the revolution,” said Javier Montsalve, a journalist and communications director for the Mérida State Legislature. “Now it is supporting the revolution, and plays a critical role in keeping people informed,” he said.
The owners of Cambio de Siglo and Diario El Vigía, Julio Marcolli and Alcides Montsalve, are big business people and vocal opponents of President Chávez and his policies. Julio Marcolli is a construction and real estate tycoon with holdings in Venezuela and Puerto Rico, and Alcides Montsalve is director of the right-wing daily La Frontera.
“[The owners] used the paper [Cambio de Siglo] as a means of smearing Chávez and the government,” Javier Montsalve said.
Over the past two years, the two owners have also violated nearly every clause of Venezuelan labor law, La Ley Organica del Trabajo. Since 2007, they have failed to pay into the Social Security system, though they took deductions from the workers’ paychecks. They also stopped paying into the workers’ retirement fund, and making deposits required under the Ley de Política Habitacional, which helps workers buy housing. In 2009, they stopped paying the workers’ “cestatickets,” or meal benefits, and they paid no salaries after June 2010.
The workers went on strike for 12 days in May 2010 and another eight in June, but continued to put out the papers until September without pay. After the Sept. 6 edition, the owners shut down the papers without notice, explanation, or any word on how they planned to pay the workers what was due them. The owners’ representatives kept promising payments that never materialized. Alcides Monsalve, the minority owner, said he was willing to pay the workers 25 percent of what they had earned if they quit their jobs, but that was all. As a last resort, the workers decided to take over the plant Oct. 4.
“It was just unacceptable that we had put the paper out on the street every day with so much effort, work and sacrifice, and the owners simply disregarded our rights as workers and human beings,” said Lisbeth Barrotea, one of the layout artists.
On the first day of the takeover, the workers were meeting every three or four hours, Barrotea said. They organized themselves into three shifts to maintain a presence at the plant.
“It was a bit uncomfortable that first night,” she said. “We had no pillows and were sleeping on the couches and in the chairs.” Over the next few months of the occupation, they brought in mattresses and pillows, cooked meals on the hotplate and microwave.
“We prepare and share food, sing and listen to music,” said Judith Vega, the one reporter on the staff. “We’re family here.”
The 16 workers who remain with the occupation—nine women and seven men—are also sharing all the functions of the paper, from administration to printing, and making all the decisions about the direction and content of the paper collectively. They make the budget, and although they have covered expenses, they have only been able to give themselves small salaries.
Building support for their fight has been more difficult than they imagined.
“Many we never thought were friends have never knocked on the door,” said Vega, “but many we didn’t know are helping out.” Students from the Bolivarian University of Mérida, including many who study journalism with Vega, have helped with everything from writing to selling the paper. The Mérida City Council has backed their struggle. Alexis Ramírez, then president of the Mérida State Legislature, and now a deputy to the National Assembly, has helped organize legal support, donations of food and other material aid, and brought presents for the workers’ children at Christmas.
Yet no other official in the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), including the state governor, has officially recognized the struggle. The National Association of Journalists, which includes many who claim to be committed to the Bolivarian Revolution, has remained silent on the takeover. Now the most important support they could receive would be from the national government.
“We are asking the government to step in and solve this problem,” said Edgar Sáenz, head of production for the paper. “We are hoping they will help us economically so we can go on with the production of the paper, secure our work and get the wages owed us.”
The workers wrote to the Ministry of Communications in Caracas early this year, explaining their situation and asking for a meeting. They are optimistically waiting for a response. Whether or not they get the needed help will be a test of the government’s willingness to follow through on its rhetoric advocating worker control.
“We are sure we will get the support we need at a national level,” Vega said. “People have said, ‘If you want to see a real revolution, come here, where the workers have taken over and will not leave until their rights are respected, where workers have taken over a media outlet for the first time here in Venezuela.’”
The new web site for Cambio de Siglo /Diario El Vigía is under construction. To stay in touch with the workers in the meantime, you can find them on Facebook asCambio Vigia.
Marcy Rein is a freelance writer and editor who has been reporting on social movements for more than 25 years. Her most recent work appears in the magazine Race, Poverty & the Environment, www.urbanhabitat.org/rpe. She can be reached at marcyrein(a)yahoo.com.
Clifton Ross directed the movie, “Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out.” His book of poetry, “Translations from Silence” won the Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence from PEN, Oakland. He can be reached at clifross(a)gmail.com.