Thursday, 31 March 2011

Does April Fools' Fall Early in Latin America?

There is a grave absence of logic at the heart of the decision to award Hugo Chávez the Rodolfo Walsh award for commitment to liberty, human rights and democratic values.  It is, in fact, an incongruous sham.

n. pl. hy·poc·ri·sies

1. The practice of professing beliefs, feelings, or virtues that one does not hold or possess; falseness.
2. An act or instance of such falseness.

Bare the above in mind, now consider that Hugo Chávez has been awarded the Rodolfo Walsh award by Argentina’s University of La Plata for "his commitment to defending the liberty of the people” and “defending human rights, truth and democratic values".  You would be forgiven for thinking that April Fools’ has arrived early this year, but this is simply a case of dumbfounding hypocrisy, for there is a serious absence of logic at the heart of this disgraceful ceremony.  Forgive me for being so frank, but celebrating Chávez in this regard is not so different from celebrating Fidel Castro for his contribution to the free market.  It is an incongruous sham.
To be sure, the narrative of development in Venezuela’s media sector over the past 12 years is more than instructive.  Through means of legislative reform and revision (which, by itself has been made possible due to Chávez’s ever increasing grip on Venezuela’s political institutions), Chávez has silenced large swaths of the media, exclusively those deemed contrary to his own Socialist mission. 
The Media Content Law of December 2004, for example, was passed by Chávez to devastating effect by making the dissemination of information deemed “contrary to national security” (a benchmark left totally at the discretion of the state) punishable by heavy fines or even the loss of ones broadcasting licence.  Unsatisfied, the regime pushed ahead to extend this law to the internet communications sector some six years later in December 2010.
More asphyxiating still, a new penal code was introduced in March 2005 which criminalised the articulation and publication of opinion that the state deemed to be “offensive”.  Article 147, for example, dictates that any individual found guilty of disrespecting Chávez or the Chávistas who carry out his work can be imprisoned for up to 30 months.  Article 297a dictates that causing panic or anxiety through inaccurate reporting is punishable by the same sentence.[i]  More to the point, the implementation of these laws have been far from idle exercises.  Leading up to the September 2010 parliamentary election, for instance, Chávez used Article 297a to ban newspapers from publishing violent or traumatic images so as to avoid rampant crime from becoming a key electoral issue; an issue that Chávez was no doubt aware would count against his party seeing as crime has quadrupled since he came to power in 1999. 
A further stipulation to the penal code dictates that should an individual reporting “offensive” material be backed by foreign funding and thought to be conspiring against the President, then the sentence could be anything up to 30 years.[ii]  30 years.  If one believes that to be “defending human rights” and the “liberty of the people”, just ask Carlos Correa, a human rights defender and director of the Venezuelan organisation Espacio Público, for his opinion on the matter.   Correa and his organisation have been hounded by Chávez and his regime after committing the somewhat less than heinous crime of taking donations from the US and are consequently under criminal investigation as well as subject to a demoralising state-media harassment campaign.[iii]
In the mainstream media, RCTV, Globovision and Caracas radio station CNB 102.3 are some of the bigger names that have felled victim to Chávez in one sense or another for failing to form a neat formation behind his socialist agenda.  But there are many more; the radio-waves alone have been scathed with some 40 percent of licences revoked – a staggering 240 stations.  Meanwhile, TV executives have been dubbed “white collar terrorists” by Chávez for daring to step across the aisle and diverge from his exuberance for the socialist revolution. 
And what has replaced these broadcasters?  Silence?  Think again.  Chávez has been industrious in expanding his own information empire, now controlling 2 national radio networks, six television channels, 72 regional television stations and 600 radio stations,[iv] providing him with an effective information infrastructure through which he can manipulate political discourse.  He tires even his keenest constituents with an eight hour radio and television slot, Aló Presidente, each Sunday which has been the typical platform for some of his most infamous political theatrics.  For those who care not to watch or listen, hard luck; Suddenly with Chávez was launched in 2010 allowing Chávez 24 hour access to the radio-waves, unannounced.  As the title quite brilliantly signifies, the programme has no schedule time and can be broadcast at midnight, the break of dawn and anywhere between at Chávez’s discretion, often interrupting popular broadcasts such as baseball games so as to maximise his audience.  One can almost imagine Chávez crashing through the television sets of millions of unsuspecting Venezuelans as their sporting idol is poised to hit a game winning home-run.
In sum, and to return to a serious note, Chávez is no such defender of “democratic values”.  He is in fact the polar opposite, waging a war against a core of democratic principles including private property and democratic representation in addition to free information.  This dictator (forget his democratic rise, he is what he has become), has quite simply endeavoured to brand political dissidence a crime thus curtailing the freedoms of information, speech and association through an incessant media offensive.  It is nothing short of dictatorial control and desperate repression of political discourse and debate; an overarching media strategy designed to suppress opposition and retain and consolidate power.
The award of this honour to Hugo Chávez is therefore hypocrisy of the highest order.  While those of us in London, Washington or any other democratic outpost are able to stand, stare and scratch our heads in disbelief, Venezuelans are subject to this sickening suffocation on a daily basis.  The uprisings across the Middle East look unlikely to extend across the Atlantic Ocean in the near future, but if Chávez’s chokehold increases in pressure applied, similar uprisings will surely reach Venezuela given time.

by Dane Vallejo

[i] Jackson Diehl, ‘Chavez’s Censorship – Where ‘Disrespect Can Land You in Jail’, The Washington Post, March 28 2005, at
[ii] Jackson Diehl, ‘Chavez’s Censorship – Where ‘Disrespect Can Land You in Jail’, The Washington Post, March 28 2005, at
[iii] ‘Open Letter: Carlos Correa, director of the Venezuelan NGO ‘Espacio Público’: harassment campaign against him’, Protect Online, August 19 2010, at

This article was originally published by The Henry Jackon Society, 31/03/11, accessed

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