[OPE-L] battle over the media in Venezuela is about race and class

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Thu Jun 07 2007 - 10:31:50 EDT

via Mike L.

The battle over the media is about race as well as class

The protests in Venezuela are motivated by more
than a TV station. The oligarchy fears it is
losing its right to run the country

Richard Gott in Caracas
Thursday June 7, 2007
The Guardian

After 10 days of rival protests in the streets of
Caracas, memories have been revived of earlier
attempts to overthrow the Bolivarian revolution
of Hugo Chávez, now in its ninth year. Street
demonstrations, culminating in an attempted coup
in 2002 and a prolonged lock-out at the national
oil industry, once seemed the last resort of an
opposition unable to make headway at the polls.
Yet the current unrest is a feeble echo of those
tumultuous events, and the political struggle
takes place on a smaller canvas. Today's battle
is for the hearts and minds of a younger
generation confused by the upheavals of an uncharted revolutionary process.

University students from privileged backgrounds
have been pitched against newly enfranchised
young people from the impoverished shantytowns,
beneficiaries of the increased oil royalties
spent on higher education projects for the poor.
These separate groups never meet, but both sides
occupy their familiar battleground within the
city, one in the leafy squares of eastern
Caracas, the other in the narrow and teeming
streets in the west. This symbolic battle will
become ever more familiar in Latin America in the
years ahead: rich against poor, white against
brown and black, immigrant settlers against
indigenous peoples, privileged minorities against
the great mass of the population. History may
have come to an end in other parts of the world,
but in this continent historical processes are in full flood.

Ostensibly the argument is about the media, and
the government's decision not to renew the
broadcasting licence of a prominent station,
Radio Caracas Television (RCTV), and to hand its
frequencies to a newly established state channel.
What are the rights of commercial television
channels? What are the responsibilities of those
funded by the state? Where should the balance
between them lie? Academic questions in Europe
and the US, the debate in Latin America is loud
and impassioned. Here there is little tradition
of public broadcasting, and commercial stations
often received their licence in the days of military rule.

The debate in Venezuela has less to do with the
alleged absence of freedom of expression than
with a perennially tricky issue locally referred
to as "exclusion", a shorthand term for "race"
and "racism". RCTV was not just a politically
reactionary organisation which supported the 2002
coup attempt against a democratically elected
government - it was also a white supremacist
channel. Its staff and presenters, in a country
largely of black and indigenous descent, were
uniformly white, as were the protagonists of its
soap operas and the advertisements it carried. It
was "colonial" television, reflecting the desires
and ambitions of an external power.

At the final, close-down party of RCTV last
month, those most in view on the screen were
long-haired and pulchritudinous young blondes.
Such images make for excellent television
watching by European and North American males,
and these languorous blondes are indeed familiar
figures from the Miss World and Miss Universe
competitions in which the children of recent
immigrants from Europe are invariably Venezuela's
chief contenders. Yet their ubiquity on the
screen prevented the channel from presenting a
mirror to the society that it sought to serve or
to entertain. To watch a Venezuelan commercial
station (and several still survive) is to imagine
that you have been transported to the US.
Everything is based on a modern, urban and
industrialised society, remote from the
experience of most Venezuelans. Their programmes,
argues Aristóbulo Istúriz, until recently
Chávez's minister of education (and an
Afro-Venezuelan), encourage racism, discrimination and exclusion.

The new state-funded channels (and there are
several of them too, plus innumerable community
radio stations) are doing something completely
different, and unusual in the competitive world
of commercial television. Their programmes look
as though they are taking place in Venezuela, and
they display the cross-section of the population
to be seen on cross-country buses or on the
Caracas metro. As in every country in the world,
not everyone in Venezuela is a natural beauty.
Many are old, ugly and fat. Today they are given
a voice and a face on the television channels of
the state. Many are deaf or hard of hearing. Now
they have sign language interpretation on every
programme. Many are inarticulate peasants. They
too have their moment on the screen. Their
immediate and dangerous struggle for land is not
just being observed by a documentary film-maker
from the city. They are being taught to make the films themselves.

Blanca Eekhout, the head of Vive TV, the
government's cultural channel, launched two years
ago, coined the slogan "Don't watch television,
make it". Classes in film-making have been set up
all over the country. Lil Rodríguez, an
Afro-Venezuelan journalist and the boss of TVES,
the channel that replaces RCTV, claims that it
will become "a useful space for rescuing those
values that other models of television always
ignore, especially our Afro-heritage". With time,
the excluded will find a voice within the mainstream.

Little of this is under discussion in the
dialogue of the deaf on the streets of Caracas.
For the protesting university students, the
argument about the media is just one more stick
with which to hit out against the ever-popular
Chávez. Yet as they mourn the loss of their
favourite soap operas, they are already aware
that their eventual loss may be more substantial.
As children of the oligarchy, they might have
expected soon to run the country. Now fresh faces
are emerging from the shantytowns to challenge
them, a new class educating itself at speed and
planning to seize their birthright.

Just a few weeks ago, Chávez outlined his plans
for university reform, encouraging wider access
and the development of a different curriculum.
New colleges and technical institutes across the
country will dilute the prestige of the older
establishments, still the preserve of the
wealthy, and the battle over the media will soon
be submerged in a wider struggle for educational
reform. Chávez takes no notice of the complaints
and simply soldiers on, with the characteristics
of an evangelical preacher: he urges people to
lead moral lives, live simply and resist the lure
of consumerism. He is embarked on a challenge to
the established order that has long prevailed in
Venezuela and throughout the rest of Latin
America, hoping that the message of his cultural
revolution will soon echo across the continent.

ˇ Richard Gott is the author of Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution

Michael A. Lebowitz
Professor Emeritus
Economics Department
Simon Fraser University
Burnaby, B.C., Canada V5A 1S6

Director, Programme in 'Transformative Practice and Human Development'
Centro Internacional Miranda, P.H.
Residencias Anauco Suites, Parque Central, final Av. Bolivar
Caracas, Venezuela
fax: 0212 5768274/0212 5777231

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