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The Hugo Chavez Show

Phil Gunson

gunson

A freelance journalist, Gunson has been based in Caracas since 1999. He writes mainly for The Economist and The Miami Herald. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on Feb. 27, 2008.

“Chávez is not a dictator. Chávez operates in the framework of an imperfect democracy. He’s very aware he has to carry the people with him.”

There seems to be a lot of free press in Venezuela.

Basically, there is a free press here. That's the simple answer to the question. The press is free; you can say what you want. [But there] can be consequences, particularly consequences not on the opposition side but on the Chavista side of the equation, because there's nothing the government hates more -- and Mr. Chávez, in particular, hates more -- than criticism from his own people.

So he's fond of lambasting in public, as he did only recently with one prominent newspaper editor who's always been very supportive of the government, for a critical headline in his newspaper. And if you're critical you tend to be excluded from the party, excluded from whatever benefits there might be.

... The difficulty has been that the parts of the press that belong to the opposition are much more closely monitored by official agencies. It's not that there's outright censorship, but, you know, the tax people are on your back all the time. The regulatory organization for the TV and broadcasting industry finds fault with opposition broadcasters for doing the same things that the government broadcasters are never punished for.

So there's this use of the official apparatus to keep the press under control, but yes, you can say what you like. And people sometimes say outrageous things and things that are not true, but it's quite lively.

What about television?

Well, what we have now since the closure last year of RCTV [Radio Caracas Televisión Internacional] -- which was a very editorially critical TV station and which reached the whole country -- Globovision, which is a 24-hour news channel, has really been the only outright opposition TV station. And Globovision doesn't reach most of the population in terms of the open signal. It only reaches Caracas and a couple of other cities nearby, and everybody else, if they want it, have to get it on cable or on satellite TV. So in terms of critical TV reaching the mass of the population, that's now quite limited.

Why was RCTV closed?

RCTV is a very old, established TV station -- it still survives on cable -- and its editorial line was extremely critical of Chávez. A couple programs in particular, and especially the morning interview program, were really hated by the government. And the government also detested RCTV for having played what it regarded as a prominent role in the events of April 2002, when Chávez was briefly overthrown. ...

And when Chávez was restored to power, [RCTV] blacked out the news of his supporters restoring him to power in an apparent bid to keep the de facto government in place. Chávez has used that -- and I say Chávez and not the government, because it was very much a personal thing on his part -- to say that RCTV didn't deserve a broadcasting license, that it was clearly playing a political role. ...

The other side of the story is a little bit more complex. Whatever you think of RCTV and its editorial line, it's clear that there was no due process. RCTV was never allowed to defend itself; it was never subjected to any specific, court-ordered sanction. And the government used administrative means to carry out a measure that was, effectively, censorship. And there's no doubt about it, from what Chávez himself said, that the problem with RCTV was not what it had done in the past but what it might do in the future, and the fact that it was a very critical broadcaster was the reason why they needed it off the air -- not only that it was critical but also that it reached the mass of the population.

Unlike Globovision, [RCTV] was a very dangerous adversary. Chávez's own supporters throughout the country are among the poorer sections of the population. [They] were watching this and seeing nightly news programs which emphasized crime, which showed the negative side of the government, interviewing people who would never get interviewed on official TV and so on. ...

Did RCTV cross the line?

The government says -- and I think there's a certain validity to what they say -- that RCTV's behavior would be unacceptable in a Western democracy. The problem is, that's never been proven. I think there may be an argument for saying that its role in the events of April 2002 was unacceptable for a broadcaster. ...

Was [shutting down RCTV] a mistake?

I think there's an argument that the moment when RCTV was closed down was the moment at which Chávez's decline began. At that point there was a break between Chávez ... and his supporters. Chávez saw RCTV as a political opponent; his supporters saw it as the channel on which they saw their soap operas in the evening. It was the channel that they'd grown up with. It was the channel that they watched on a Saturday afternoon. It was what made coming home from work worthwhile because you ... had something to entertain you at home. ... Crime has been so rampant that going out to entertain yourself has really not been an option for a lot of Venezuelans.

And the fact that Chávez was able to close that down without taking into account the needs and the wishes of ordinary people seems to have started people thinking, well, maybe Chávez is not necessarily on our side.

How does this connect to Chávez's referendum loss a few months later over the issue of constitutional reform?

Certainly that year [2007] began with the measures against RCTV and ended in December with Chávez's first-ever defeat at the polls. And RCTV obviously wasn't the only reason; another was that the referendum package was very unpopular. But certainly the kind of blind faith in Chávez that a lot of ordinary people had up until the closure of RCTV -- and that no longer was quite so prevalent by December -- I think may have been a factor.

The other important part is that ... it was RCTV that brought the students onto the street, and they never left. From that point on the students have been a factor, which the government hasn't been able to deal with in the same way as it could deal in the past with the rather incompetent opposition. ...

Chávez paid a price for closing down RCTV. I think he may have been aware that he was going to pay a price, but I think he probably underestimated that price. ... Chávez is not a dictator. Chávez operates in the framework of an imperfect democracy. He’s very aware he has to carry the people with him. ...

Chávez is on TV a lot, yes?

... Chávez is someone who very definitely needs to be in the public eye all the time. He needs to be the center of attention. And a lot of the time when he's on cadena -- a national nationwide linkup on all channels of radio and TV -- [he's] saying things which are completely inconsequential.

There was one occasion in which he called a cadena -- ... I think it was in an afternoon; people were driving home from work. ... There was a railway tunnel being constructed, and he wanted to be the man to break through the last wall of rock to complete the tunnel. So he got onto a piece of tunnel-making equipment ... with a pneumatic drill on the front of it to break through the rock. He wasn't very good at it, and it took him a long time. ... I mean, imagine radio listeners: People ... assumed that something was wrong with the radio because all they were getting was something that sounded like static.

This is a man who really needs to be the center of attention, regardless of what he's doing. He tells stories about his youth; he sings; he exchanges anecdotes with his ministers. And, you know, in a fraction of the time he'll tell you what he really wanted to say. Most of the cadenas could be cut down to 5 percent of their length, and he would still get his message across. But he likes to be in people's living rooms and cars there, occupying their attention. ...

Describe Aló Presidente.

... It's a program that can last six, seven, even eight hours on a Sunday. It starts when the president decides it starts, and it finishes when he's ready to finish. It has no timetable. It has a rough script, but it's basically the president improvising. He has guests, and he has some video segments that are included. The original idea, or the way it was presented when it began, was this will be the president before the nation, taking phone calls, answering people's complaints and so on, explaining government policies. [It] doesn't work like that because the phone calls are filtered, because anybody who's really critical doesn't get on the air.

And so it's really the president's show. It plays a number of roles. Perhaps the most important role that it plays is that ... people at all levels of the public administration have to watch it, because that's when the president gives them their instructions for the week. From one week to the next, Aló Presidente is the forum in which the president determines the news agenda to some extent, but he also tells people what the line is. He tells them: "This is what's happening: ... This is what you are; this is what we think; this is what we collectively think. ... This is how you respond when somebody says, 'But crime has gone up,' or 'I can't get milk.'" ... The president explains to you why you can't get milk: It's because the private sector are hoarding milk or selling it to Colombia or whatever his excuse might be. And that's the story that you will hear in the course of the week, from followers of the president. ...

And it's also his showcase for things that he wants to do. It's the way he launches fresh initiatives; it's the way he tells you what is important. ... And it's Aló Presidente that is the vehicle by which he announces these policy changes or policy initiatives.

Do you think it's humiliating [to government officials]?

I once asked a minister what he felt about being forced to listen to Chávez's speeches for five and six hours at a time, and he just grinned and he said, "No comment." ...

While [the ministers are] sitting there, they're obviously not working. ... They could equally well get a transcript. They don't need to be there, but they're there partly because the president will say to them, "You know, Minister So-and-so, do you know how much steel we produced last year?" And the minister has to know. If he doesn't know, he's in real trouble. ...

It's a power play by the president in the sense that by having them there, he turns them into his pupils. I mean, it's quite clear what the relation to power is when it is as if you were sitting in class in school with your teacher in front of you. You're slightly uncomfortable because you know at any point he can point to you and say, "What's the answer to this question?" And it is humiliating, really, and it's forcing them to go through that humiliation that keeps them in line. ...

... You can't be a member of the team who says: "You know what? I don't want to go to Aló Presidente this week. I've got serious things to do down at the ministry." You can't say that, because the next thing that happens is that they change the locks on your office door and your desk is cleared. And that's the way it works. ...

Tell the Rory Carroll story.

Rory, The Guardian's correspondent here -- I think at the time had only been here for a few months -- got invited to Aló Presidente. It can be a very uncomfortable situation for a journalist because you're very much exposed; you're on live TV. ...

... So Rory asked a question about re-election, if I remember [correctly], and the president got quite annoyed. He started talking about the Queen of England and how she'd been in power for 50 years, and why was it OK for Europeans? And then he started about colonialism. And the irony is that Rory isn't even British; he's Irish. I mean, the Irish know all about British colonialism. But of course it was hard for him to get a word in edgeways.

And this is not just one occasion; it's happened on many occasions to unfortunate journalists who happen to ask a question that the president really doesn't want to answer or that touches a raw nerve. ... So journalists don't look forward to going on Aló Presidente.

Can you talk a little more about how he treats foreign journalists?

He discriminates; that's the first thing. Your access, not just to the president but to the government in general, is determined by whether or not you're perceived as a friend. So they're not really interested in giving access to the critical press. If you come along and you have a track record of writing nice things about the revolution, and provided that you stick to that line, then you can't guarantee access, but you at least have a chance. Those of us who don't toe the official line don't get much access. And that's true not just of the foreign press; it's true of the local press as well.

Why doesn't he seduce his enemies?

... A modern approach to PR is to say: "The people who like us will go on liking us; we don't need to talk to them. Let them carry on writing what they like; it's fine. The people we need to influence are the people who are critical, so let's bring them in, and let's show them what we're really doing." ... But this is not the thinking of the government on the whole. It's not Chávez's thinking, because he divides the world into patriots and traitors, into imperialists and patriots. There's no half measures. ... If you're an enemy, then in theory your agenda is simply getting rid of the government. ...

Is he that paranoid?

It verges on paranoia at times, yes. ... He definitely has an inflated sense of his own importance on the world stage. And he's absolutely convinced that -- or appears to be, anyway -- you know, George Bush goes to bed every night thinking of ways to assassinate Hugo Chávez. ... Chávez does appear to be convinced that there is a plot to kill him or many plots to kill him. ... It's not impossible that that's the case, but the number of times that this comes up without any real, substantial evidence being presented suggests that there's more paranoia to it than there is the natural need for security. ...

Does part of his fear comes from the coup?

I think part of this fear, this obsession with being assassinated, started with the coup of 2002. He didn't say, ... after the 47 hours or whatever it was that he was out of power, that there was any threat of his being killed, and it was quite a long time before he actually brought this up, which inclines me to believe that there was never really any serious threat of his being physically [injured]. But in recent times it's become part of the official myth, that he was on the point of being executed, that he was only saved by the action of certain soldiers who were present. ...

... Obviously the whole coup thing was extremely traumatic. I mean, he did lose power, ... and he did think that he was going to go into exile. ... And he came very close if not to losing his life, at least to losing power. And that's become a very, very important part of the whole story that Chávez himself and the Chavistas tell about what has happened in the last few years. And some of it's true, and some of it's not; some of it's exaggerated and embroidered. And the nuances, the contradictions get lost in the story. There is an official myth, and you're supposed to believe that. ...

One analyst ... said that Chávez ... needs for this to be a real blood-and-guts revolution like the Cuban revolution. And in a way, he must be aware that it's not like that; that he staged a failed coup, he was then elected, he was thrown out in a very messy semi-coup in April 2002 and came back into power. He wants to make his enemies bigger than they are, and he wants to make himself bigger than he is, because he really feels that he should be considered on the level of someone like [Marxist revolutionary Ernesto] "Che" Guevara, for example.

Or Fidel [Castro].

Or Fidel, yeah. I mean, Fidel is actually the only [living] person that Chávez defers to as somebody who clearly is a man of greater stature than himself. ... And in order for Chávez to reach the category [of Castro, he] ... has to be presented in a way that exaggerates everything. The dangers have to be greater. The failed coup in '92 that Chávez staged has to be turned into some kind of revolutionary epic, which it certainly wasn't. And everything is two or three times bigger than life-size. ...

Is there a difference after the loss of the referendum?

The Dec. 2, 2007, referendum result was a crucial watershed, I think. ... One, Chávez's aura of invincibility was lost forever. You can only be invincible until you're defeated. ... And revolutionaries don't lose elections. ... That loss damaged him fundamentally among his own followers, because it's now clear, I think, that Chávez has an expiration date, which is January of 2013. Constitutionally he can't continue beyond that. ...

What has he done [in terms of social policy]?

At the beginning, going right back to 1999, 2000, 2001, when Chávez first came in, he didn't seem to have a very clear idea what his social policy was. In fact, his early attempts to initiate a social policy that was in favor of the poor, which always was promised from the 1998 election onward, really didn't get off the ground. And partly, of course, it was because the economic situation was very tight. And then we went into a very negative political cycle in which the opposition had the upper hand, and Chávez even lost power in April of 2002.

Once he went through 2002 and the oil strike, ... the opposition were to some extent corralled. ... At the same time, because of the coup, because of that sense of danger, of risk that the government was running, the need to recover ground, and ... the beginning of a steady increase in the price of oil, [these things] gave him for the first time the money that he could spend on social programs.

All of those factors kind of combined, and what came out of that ... [were] social programs known as missions. ... So you have an education ministry, but you have a whole series of educational missions [that were] presented originally as emergency programs ... The idea was to end exclusion, a very valid and very noble aim. Millions of Venezuelans were excluded in terms of education, in terms of health, social welfare and housing and so on. And so all these areas were attacked by missions, which began to proliferate; there are 30-odd or maybe even more now. And it was a very, very popular approach, first of all, because by getting outside of the bureaucratic structure, it meant that the government could assign resources directly to where the problems were. The money flowed, to a large extent, to the poorest segments of society. ...

The initial impact was very positive. Most of the missions, or at least the core missions -- things like Barrio Adentro, which is primary health care in poor areas; which include Mission Robinson, which is the literacy campaign, and Mercal, which is subsidized food for the poor -- all these, you know, [were] naturally very popular. And as time has gone by, the holes have begun to appear. They're badly hit by corruption. They're not as efficient as they should be in reassigning resources to the poor. The enthusiasm tends to wane because initially the missions depended an awful lot on voluntary assistance and on people working for well below the going rate. ... So all those things have meant that the missions over time have faded away, and it's become obvious that they're not really a sustainable answer to the problem of exclusion. ...

But it's certainly true, I think, that the missions played a fundamental role in keeping Chávez popular for at least three years, maybe even four, between late 2003 and 2007, and contributed to his 2006 re-election at a time when the opposition really didn't have much in the way of an alternative to offer the government made. ...

Were the failures of the missions also the failure of the cooperatives?

The cooperatives and the missions in some ways are quite similar. They suffer from the same sorts of problems. They suffer from corruption. The government doesn't seem to have been able to institute proper checks and balances. In fact, those checks and balances that existed in the institutional structure that existed when Chávez came to power, many of them have been dismantled. ... The cooperative principle, which is fine up to a point, doesn't really work over as a way of running an economy. ... It's not an easy model to institute.

What happened here was the government said, "You [can] have the money; you can have the resources; we'll give you the training, and it's for you to set up cooperatives the way we want you to set them up and to do things we want you to do." And of course people said, "OK, that's the way I get the money, then that's what I'm going to do." You set up a cooperative. But cooperatives were set up which competed with one another. ... There was no real assessment, proper assessment, of the projects that were being presented, because the idea was to deliver the money.

The other characteristic, I think, ... that the cooperatives share with the missions is that they're run on political criteria. So you get the resources if you're loyal to the revolution, and that applies to people who are benefiting from the missions, who are required to go along to pro-Chávez rallies and so on, and it applies to people in cooperatives. You don't get the resources if you're identified with the opposition or if you're critical.

And so what becomes apparent as you study the phenomenon is that the fundamental driving force behind these ideas is that they are intended to keep the government in power. They're intended to be a way in which resources are transferred down to the grassroots so that the grassroots will repay that in the form of political loyalty. ...

The government benefits the people, the people vote for the government, that's fine. The problem is when you start discriminating against people in terms of the benefits that they receive according to whether or not they wear red T-shirts and go along and shout "Chávez" at the next rally. And when that's the driving principle, the rest of it tends to go out of the window. ... In that sense, [the missions and cooperatives] weren't set up to be a viable economic project; they were set up to produce votes at the next election.

posted november 19, 2008

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