Politics & Policy

Overreaching Autocrat

Chavez abolishes freedom of the press to stop the spread of soap operas.

The death knell for freedom in Venezuela was the sound of silence, as Hugo Chavez’s regime finally pulled the plug on Radio Caracas TV at midnight Sunday.

#ad#The next sound to emerge had the ring of totalitarianism, as government “socialist television” station TVES began broadcasting 20 minutes later, after soldiers had seized all equipment inside RCTV studios. The first broadcast was Gustavo Dudamel, music director of the Simon Bolivar National Youth Orchestra (who is to lead the Los Angeles Philharmonic starting in 2009) conducting the national anthem, as if the shuttering of Venezuela’s oldest station had something to do with national pride or artistic freedom.

“Do not lose hope. We will see you soon,” RCTV presenter Nelson Bustamante said as tearful staff bade viewers farewell and shouted “Freedom!” before the screen went black.

Network president Marcel Granier, after pointing out the obvious about Chavez’s megalomania and authoritarianism, vowed, “Democracy will return to Venezuela, along with RCTV.”

The true heroes of the day, unlike those to be splashed on Hugo’s silver screen in collaboration with Danny Glover, were the thousands of Venezuelans who took to the streets to protest Chavez’s autocratic closing of RCTV. They protested in the days leading up to the closure, as each appeal to keep the station opened failed. They protested as the hours ticked down for RCTV, met by riot police spraying water cannons and tear gas. And university students poured into the streets Monday, braving tear gas and a barrage of rubber bullets at Briones Plaza in eastern Caracas, one of many demonstrations throughout the country.

The station’s closure touched a nerve and touched off the largest student demonstrations in eight years, a leader told the Associated Press. And as the fury over Chavez’s heavy hand continued unabated, one couldn’t help but wonder if closing RCTV will be Chavez’s fatal miscalculation.

Perhaps it opened the eyes of some people who still believed in Chavez’s yarn about caring socialism and a country that’s truly for the people. Shutting a TV station because you don’t like its criticisms is an action straight from the Soviet bloc or Castro’s authoritarian wonderland. Suddenly red shirts may not be looking so fashionable anymore, despite the till-dawn party of Chavez supporters staged outside RCTV after the station takeover.

Chavez decided to strike at the media, an unwise move for any ruler in the information age. Word spreads like lightning, and offense is taken by even the most apolitical resident as he realizes that the government is now controlling what he’s allowed to watch. To say the move was a no-win for Chavez would be an understatement.

After Chavez shot himself in the foot by shutting RCTV, he quickly reloaded and went for another round: On Monday, Communications and Information Minister Willian Lara initiated a probe into CNN and Globovision, the remaining opposition-allied TV station (thought it does not have the nationwide reach that RCTV did), charging that the networks were spreading “lies” and inciting violence against the Bolivarian leader.

“We are on alert,” Globovision general manager Alberto Federico Ravell told Bloomberg from Caracas. “This exposes the president’s growing media voracity and his necessity to control the voice of dissent. We are on the path to totalitarianism.”

Chavez has even drawn the ire of the European Union. A resolution adopted Thursday by the European Parliament says that the RCTV closure “establishes an alarming precedent for freedom of expression in Venezuela” and calls on the nation to “ensure equal treatment under the law for all media, whether private or public, irrespective of all political or ideological considerations.”

Not that anyone expects Chavez, in his lust for power, to listen to domestic protests or international outcry.

Archbishop Baltazar Porras Cardozo of Merida, whom the government once admitted they had secretly videotaped as he said Mass, blasted Chavez in Brazilian daily O Estado de Sao Paulo. “This revolutionary Venezuelan system, a mixture of Marxist, militaristic and populist elements, appears, in many ways, in governments like Fidel Castro’s and assimilates attitudes like those adopted by Hitler and Mussolini in Europe,” Porras Cardozo wrote.

What will the world do while those Venezuelan protesters are pelted with rubber bullets as they stand up for democracy? Will the 70 to 80 percent of Venezuelans who said they opposed closing RCTV all hit the streets in protest themselves? Will this finally be the turning point when the world opens its eyes to the true goals of Chavez, which have nothing to do with social betterment or brotherhood? Will his media crackdown be the beginning of the end of his reign, or the first of many black, repressive days to come?

On Saturday, Chavez targeted telenovelas as a reason to close the station. No longer was he upset with RCTV for not supporting his reign or giving due coverage to his post-coup power grab — atrocious lapses in journalistic ethics, both. No, rather, it was the soap operas that he called “a danger for the country, for boys, for girls.”

Chavez is lucky enough that all of Latin America didn’t storm into Miraflores Palace and oust him for insulting their beloved telenovelas. It was an odd denunciation, to say the least, and surely unpopular. But perhaps Chavez is intimidated by any storyline in which the good guy wins and the bad guy, whose nefarious deeds are exposed, doesn’t ride off into the sunset with the model-turned-race-car-driver.

– Bridget Johnson is a columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. She blogs at GOP Vixen.

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