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Media | With HispanTV, the Islamic Republic Habla Español También


26 Jan 2012 21:10Comments

New IRI network aimed at Latin American viewership.

SpanishTV.jpg[ dispatch ] Latin American TV is famous for its telenovelas, over-the-top soap operas that might feature a man competing with a clone of himself for the love of his life. The popular melodramas are dubbed into several languages and make up some of Latin America's most successful cultural exports. Now the Islamic Republic of Iran wants to add some variety to Latin American airwaves. Iran's state-owned broadcasting corporation recently launched HispanTV, a Spanish-language network that's bringing Iranian-produced news, documentaries, and even soap operas to Latin American audiences.

It kicked off last month with a film about the birth of Jesus -- Jesus the prophet, as per Islam. "I thought that was a really interesting way to build a cultural bridge. It's like 'Hey, you have Mary and Jesus and so do we! We're not so different from you,'" said Doug Farah, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center who's been following Iran's interest in Latin America. "I think HispanTV is an interesting and significant indication that Iran is planning something a little more long-term in the region, not just tactical alliances."

By projecting Iran's worldview into countries where the main player has been the United States for more than a century, HispanTV reflects Iran's desire to build upon a narrative it shares with Latin American leftists: triumph over the unjust American global bully.

Like Iran's English-language network Press TV, launched in 2007, HispanTV has portrayed the E.U.'s decision to boycott Iranian oil as a foolish and unjustified U.S.-Israeli attack on Iran's population and sovereignty that Iran will undoubtedly survive with the help of other powerful developing nations.

Mohsen Milani, a professor at the University of South Florida who specializes in Iran, says the country, as some experts have suggested, suffers from "strategic loneliness" and has turned to Venezuela mostly for political and not economic reasons. "That doesn't mean Iran doesn't have economic interests there, but that its primary goal is to form a united ideological and political front with Venezuela against what the two countries perceive to be American unilateralism." Milani, who testified before Congress in 2009 about Iran-Venezuela relations, adds that "Iran wants to have a visible presence in America's own backyard."

It turns out there is some fertile ground for anti-Americanism in America's backyard. The four countries Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited during his most recent tour of Latin America -- Venezuela, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Cuba -- all share Iran's experience with U.S. intervention in domestic politics. That history is not lost on Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. After shaking hands with Ahmadinejad during the inauguration ceremony for his third term in office, Ortega called Nicaragua's and Iran's 1979 overthrows of U.S.-supported dictators "twin revolutions".

"Certainly the behavior of the United States in Latin America from the 19th to the end of the 20th century is a huge psychological issue here," said Farah. "And I think they're working quite hard to build a common lexicon about the United States being the empire and the devil."

Over the years Ahmadinejad and Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez have honed a political rhetoric that has cemented their ideological common ground while burying the philosophical differences that separate Iran's Islamic theocracy from the secular socialism of Chávez's Bolivarian movement. Spreading that message beyond Venezuela and into the rest of Latin America is key to Iran diversifying its Latin American alliances.

Farah says Ahmadinejad's recent visit to Cuba could give Iran additional legitimacy. "Chávez may still be viewed as sort of a buffoon, but Ahmadinejad is making friends with Fidel Castro. And when Fidel comes out supporting Iran, that still resonates in Latin America. People might not think 'Oh, this is wonderful,' but he is an icon and that's an important part of the equation at this point."

Making friends with Latin American leaders who enjoy defying their northern neighbor could lead to tangible benefits as the U.S. continues to push to punish Iran for its nuclear program. Farah says development funds and banks established with its Latin American allies can serve as detours around economic sanctions, providing Iran with needed goods and hard currency.

And Iran is no longer reaching out just to Latin American heads of state, it's now reaching out to ordinary Latin Americans, with documentaries about devotion to Shia religious figure Imam Reza and the AMIA bombings in Argentina, which Argentinean leaders still blame on Iran.

Marcelo Sánchez, HispanTV's Washington correspondent, says the U.S. has influenced mass media in Latin America for too long, and the result is clear. "If I'm in Buenos Aires and watch CNN International in Spanish, I would think most Iranians are barbarians!" he said. "But that's not true."

A Bolivian native, Sánchez worked for U.S.-based Telemundo and the Moscow-funded Russia Today before joining HispanTV. He's filed reports on the expulsion of Venezuela's consul general in Miami, U.S. soldiers whose remains have ended up in a Virginia landfill, and Occupy Congress protests on Capitol Hill. They're stories he says are missing from the corporate-owned TV networks that dominate Latin American airwaves.

"You'll have Occupy D.C. happening here and there's nothing on it at all over there. How can that be? They'll focus on a poor white American teenager kidnapped in Aruba, trouble in paradise -- yeah, they'll have that story on all day, day after day. But what about the things that really matter? How about connecting a Latin American audience with the majority of Americans who are suffering during this horrible recession? How about telling them there are millions of people in the U.S. who are in your same situation?"

Carolina Acosta-Alzuru, a Venezuelan native and a University of Georgia professor who studies television in Latin America, says she likes that HispanTV offers programming on a wide variety of topics not usually covered by Western media, like a documentary about Muslims in Argentina. But she says she was put off by the "blatant, one-sided reporting" of the network's newscasts and programs dubbed into Spanish using actors from Spain. "I was surprised they didn't use accents that would have been more Latin American neutral," she said. "It made the programming feel even more foreign than it is."

She also bristled at the underlying message of a film she watched about a woman who feels invisible to her children and husband. "It's Mother's Day and nobody is there to have dinner with her, so it was very heartbreaking to me as a mother! But then there was this line and I was so struck by it I actually wrote it down: 'The existence of a woman only makes sense with a child...,' and it's about how children define you and I'm all the time thinking any minute they're going to show how that's not the case. But it never happens. I mean, I'm a mother and all that but that's not what I want to teach my daughters."

Farah says he witnessed similar discomfort when he visited an Iranian-run clinic in La Paz, Bolivia. Women seeking medical treatment, most of them indigenous Aymara, had to wear headscarves inside. The clinic, he said, was empty. "And it's a very poor section of La Paz where, if you had a clinic people liked, it'd probably be full all day long."

Iran's interest in Latin America is also making some in the United States seemingly uncomfortable. Republican presidential candidates have said Iran and Hezbollah are working to launch terrorist attacks from Latin America. The Obama administration has warned Latin American leaders of "consequences" for flirting with Iran and described Ahmadinejad's most recent visit as a "desperate" attempt to make friends as sanctions tighten.

Sánchez with HispanTV says that kind of rhetoric doesn't play well in Latin America anymore. "How can you tell a sovereign country who to talk to and who not to talk to? That's childish," he said. "For more than 100 years in Latin America everything has been about the U.S. It's feared, it's hated, it's respected, it's loved. It's big brother. He loves you when you're good and punishes you when you're bad. I think it's time for us to change that."

Ahmadinejad has visited Latin America six times since becoming president in 2005. If visits to close neighbor Mexico are excluded, Obama and Bush have visited Latin America just four times over a combined eleven years in office. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have derailed attention and resources from Latin America, but with the U.S. withdrawing from Iran's backyard, Farah says it's time policymakers catch up with Latin America.

"And to me the danger is an overreaction -- people in the intelligence community and the military who suddenly have time on their hands wondering what's next and saying, 'Oh we have Iran down there, we better do something about it!' Instead of just paying attention to it and understanding it and finding ways to make up for ten years of neglecting Latin America."

Acosta-Alzuru says at the very least, the United States doesn't need to feel threatened by Iran's PR push with HispanTV. "In general when I think about Latin American people -- I don't think anyone would relinquish their local telenovela for any of this material."

Mitra Taj is a freelance journalist.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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