Venezuelan Freedoms, Opium and Tomato Ketchup

It’s been a fascinating and educational experience for me to witness the high level academic dialogue on Brazil here in Nouriel’s new initiative, and I can only applaud the brainpower behind the debate on the issues thus far. Long may it continue. I will therefore ignore the subject totally and instantly lower the tone with a blog on Hugo Chávez.  

I will not waste the reader’s time with background into the RCTV story, as I’m pretty sure you’ve heard more than enough. But the implications are only just starting to sink in. It would seem that Chávez has put his foot in it somewhat by annoying the people he should least annoy, namely his powerbase from Venezuela’s lower income classes. One of the secrets to his success so far has been engaging this section of previously politically apathetic society. Whatever hue your politics, it’s tough to find fault in allowing more people into the political franchise and decision-making processes that affect their own future. However, it is possible that Chávez has miscalculated one vital element: the soap opera.  

The soap opera, telenovela, or often just ‘novela’ is an ingrained part of life in all South America. I remember my first visit to Brazil many moons ago. In a favela north of Rio de Janeiro, I was struck by the sight of rows and rows of tiny dwellings (difficult to call them houses) made of corrugated sheeting, each with a satellite TV dish. I found out what they were hooked on later. In a nearby coastal resort bar for locals, the men would share jokes and animated football discussions while playing dominoes until a telenovela came on. For the next hour all eyes would be glued on the screen, conversation only allowed during commercial breaks. I was shushed down by a large man with a knife in a holster. I stayed very shush and watched a TV actor die from what looked like drowning in tomato ketchup.  

That long-winded, anecdotal preamble is to give a little flavour to what Chávez has taken away from his own people. Brazil was my example, but it could have been any country in novela-mad Latin America. Venezuela is no exception, and RCTV is (or should I say ‘was’?) the producer of many of Venezuela’s most popular novelas and shows, and that RCTV is still available on cable TV won’t make the slightest difference to the millions of low income households that can’t afford cable. Thousands of students can march on the capital in the name of free speech (and I applaud them), but they and more importantly Chávez are missing the point.  

If the issue were only free speech, then one would expect a vociferous rebuttal from the Chávistas. Media bias is rampant in Venezuela and the RCTV editorial line has always been crystal clear, but that never stopped hardened Chávista militants from watching the channel and the astounding lack of balance in RCTV news programs. However, Chávez has not been able to rally grass roots support over RCTV because for his own higher reasons has taken away one of the greatest pleasures from lives of millions of ordinary citizens.  I have taken soundings from journalist friends in Caracas and they the say single most repeated complaint has been, “All this crime and he’s worried about my TV station”.  

In 1843, Karl Marx wrote that “Religion….is the opium of the people.” Fast forward to the early 21st century, swap religion for TV, and there’s a truism for our times. Television is today’s happy sedative, and one way to rile an addict is to force them into suffering withdrawal symptoms. I submit that Chávez has done the exact opposite to his stated plans. Instead of improving the quality of life for the poor of Venezuela, with one petulant gesture he has made it instantly worse by taking away the novelas they love and replacing it with documentaries on icebreakers in the Antarctic. Te equivocaste, Comandante.  

Of course, those opposed to the Chávez government have jumped on the chance to undermine him (the empire strikes back?). Despite the revolution, opposition forces still have a lot of political and financial clout so the RCTV issue will only go away when they want it to go away (i.e. not while Chávez is in power). Smarting from Chávez’s constant attacks on the oligarchy, they have found their enemy’s Achilles heel and won’t be afraid of exploiting it. They have gained international sympathy for the “freedom of press” angle. They have idealist students on the same side. They have had limited rebuttals at home from those missing their favourite soap. Any Chávez supporter who thinks the issue will fade and die in a week or two is in for a rude awakening.    

Meanwhile, Chávez’s not-so-veiled threats towards other TV, radio and printed news media in the few days since RCTV lost its concession is disconcerting. It also seems the bullyboy rhetoric has had some short-term effect, as today’s London Guardian reports on how only one TV channel, Globovisión, is reporting on the thousands of students who marched into downtown Caracas today were “demanding freedom of speech” while pro-Chávez media were calling them “vandals and thugs” and other media outlets were nervously playing down the story. Of Globovisión, Chávez took time out on a national TV broadcast to say “I recommend they take a tranquiliser, that they slow down, because if not, I’m going to slow them down.” That’s not the kind of talk I want to hear from a head of state with executive lawmaking powers, and that is putting it mildly.  

In conclusion: Venezuela political risk has just jumped a rung or two, and those with exposure to the country should be keeping a close eye on developments. Neither friend nor foe of the present government is innocent, but this philosophical point won’t help much if the squabbles and protests of today escalate into something that might seriously affect the economic future of Venezuela. Chávez has proven himself to be a smart politician up to now (proof of point; anyone who stays in power in South America for as long as Chávez cannot be stupid), but even so his next moves will have to be closely watched and analyzed. We hope that he gets a dose of smarts and backs off from escalating the rhetoric in order to find a constructive way of calming the tension, and as such have not yet changed our stance on investments in the country. On the other hand, we are definitely musing on how the fictional world of the soap opera can impact the real world of stocks, bonds, currencies and even lives.

5 Responses to "Venezuelan Freedoms, Opium and Tomato Ketchup"

  1. Guest   May 31, 2007 at 9:42 am

    All interesting points. Question is, what would you do to a major media outlet that was actively involved in directing a coup? Most Venezuelans realize that the prosperity they are now enjoying would not have been available to them (i.e.–the elites would have wallowed in the oil riches with scraps trickling down), had RCTV had its way in 2002. Foregoing a soap opera is a small price to pay for having adequate food, education, healthcare and dignity.

  2. JSP   May 31, 2007 at 11:14 am

    Mark, excellent analysis and very good point on the importance of telenovelas for many people. Often, what people at the grassroots level enjoy, as part of their daily lives, is many times at variance with the beliefs of politicians and intelectuals as to what people SHOULD enjoy. In my opinion, the rise to power of President Chavez was due to the failure of democratic parties, such as the social democrats (Carlos Andres Perez and others) and the Christian Democrats (Herrera Campins and others), to address the issue of poverty and lack of access to opportunities by most citizens in Venezuela, including: access to land; bank credit; capital; employment; technology; health and education. President Chavez came to power through free and democratic elections, certified by international observers. President Chavez has given a lot of hope to a very large number of Venezuelans. President Chavez has created conditions whereby a lage number of people have access to economic and social opportunities, health and education. The President has also included new actors (political and social forces) in the decision making process, as opposed to the closed circle of decision making by previous elites. However and in my opinion, President Chavez has incresingly shown arrogance, intolerence for the opposition, repression of dissenting ideas, and lust for power. This is all very worrying for many Latinos, who otherwise are in favor of deep social reform to combat poverty. Moreover, President Chvez has grown close to authoritarian figures, such as the President of Iran and the President of Cuba. In my opinion, there should be, in any country, free and open competition of ideas and ideologies. This implies access to the media (TV, radio, newspapers) by the broad majorities. If a member of the media, such as RCTV, breaks legality (for example calling for a coup) it should be sued by the governmet and due legal process applied. I believe that dctatorships (either of the political right, the political left, or the political center) are MOST UNWELOME in Latin America. In Cuba citizens need government permission to access the Internet. I hope this does not repeat anywhere in Latin America.

  3. mark turner   June 1, 2007 at 8:59 am

    Guest,  You make a valid point. If i were to ask readers here to point to the greater good between free healthcare and soap operas the outcome wouldn’t be in doubt.  My point is that the sudden and (for most RCTV viewers) unexpected removal of the channel is a problem. I image a conversation between executives and people:  Exec: “we’re going to give you free schooling” People: “hooray” Exec: “now you have free schooling, we’re going to give you free health care” People: “hooray” Exec: “now you have free health care, we’re going to raise the minimum wage by 20%” people: “hooray” Exec: “And now you have all that, we’re going to take away RCTV” people: “Huh? Why? That’s not fair! I like that channel!!”  etc etc. My point is that Chavez has managed to alienate a large section of his grassroots supporters with one seemingly small move, and whether it is good or bad in the long run is for others to decide. I am the first to applaud the steps that the Chavez government has taken in improving the lot of low income families in Venezuela. That said, the criticism from those same people about the refusal to continue RCTV’s concession is real, too.  The bottom line is that i’m just trying to call it as i see it. My position as an equities analyst is to (attempt to) strip the polemic from either side of a political debate but be acutely aware of changes in the debate that might affect the economic situation of a country or company within. There are plenty of people in this world who try to tell others how to vote. I’m not one of them.

  4. Anonymous   June 8, 2007 at 11:49 am

    What gets printed in the US press about Latin America is, unfortunately, inaccurate and incomplete. From Richard Gott in The Guardian:  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.  It was also widely viewed as an agency of US propaganda, receiving funding through NED.  I think a simple reality check to impose on your hypothesis is to ask whether any typical African American in a poor neigborhood in Indianapolis or Houston or Oakland would be devastated by the loss of programming by Donald Trump if it were replaced by, say, Tavis Smiley, Spike Lee, Maya Angelou, and others of similar accomplishments.   My guess is they’d get over it.

  5. Anonymous ibid.   June 8, 2007 at 11:53 am

    Sorry, quotes should go around the second paragraph in the post above. Richard Gott did not comment on the US use of RCTV as a propaganda arm, ask Mark Turner to do a reality check, or conclude that this is a te(lenovela)mpest in a teapot.