History in the Making
by Oscar Sabetta/Getty Images
Guard soldiers throw tear gas at members of the opposition of
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez April 11, 2002 behind Miraflores
Presidential Palace in Caracas, Venezuela. Police and armed Chavez
supporters marched with 150,000 opposition protesters near the
presidential palace resulting in the death of at least 12 people
and 110 wounded, officials said.
How the press ousted a president
by Angel Gonzalez
What television gives, television takes away - and Venezuela's
influential news media know that. According to Miguel Henrique Otero,
publisher of Venezuela's foremost daily, El Nacional, television
is at the heart of the incredible series of events that led to the 48-hour
ousting of President Hugo Chávez from power.
The shot that temporarily ended Chavez's presidency in April didn't
come from a an assassin, but a cameraman who filmed a government supporter
firing wildly from a rooftop into an unarmed crowd. When the video was
broadcast, Chavez interrupted its transmission, improvising an address
to the nation as his opponents and sympathizers battled outside Miraflores.
After media operators figured out that the president was buying time,
they split the screen - one half showed Chavez saying that nothing
was happening, and the other half showed images of the violence in the
The hand of an advisor appeared on the screen as he passed a slip of
paper to Chavez. He immediately ordered the suspension of all broadcasts
on the grounds that the networks were in a conspiracy to overthrow the
government. The channels blacked out one by one. But a few minutes later,
images refilled screens - Venezuela's budding autocrat had
been deposed. (The role of the Bush administration in the whole fiasco
was still being debated as this goes to press).
The dethroning of Chavez was just another chapter of a long, stormy
relationship between a mercurial figure who used and abused the media
and Venezuela's free and resourceful press. The courtship evolved
from the telecast inception of the Bolivarian Revolution to the opposition
against an increasingly autocratic regime - one that many feel
became too zealous in its role.
Venezuela is a televisual country, prone to the spectacular. With more
than 83 televisions percapita, it's also one of the main television
content producers in the hemisphere, exporting soap operas and beauty
contests all over the world.
So it's no wonder that Chávez entered national life through
the television set. In the dawn of Feb. 4, 1992, the then-unknown lieutenant
colonel attempted a coup against democrat Carlos Andrés Pérez.
After the coup was stopped, Chavez addressed the TV cameras, declaring
that the fight against corruption was over.
The rebellious colonel was subsequently portrayed as a hero, and after
his release from jail in 1994, he became the country's most polemic
politician. His natural charisma and fiery personality made him a favorite
subject of newscasts and talk shows. He rose in prominence until a landslide
election crowned him president in 1998.
Much to the horror of the middle class, the new President became the
country's first broadcaster. Every Sunday he performed on a radio
talk show, Aló Presidente, where he fielded phone calls from
constituents who asked for a house or other favors. He even sang along
with Fidel Castro much to the pleasure of his following.
He also profited from a law that allowed the government's interruption
of broadcast programming in all networks to address the country -
sometimes for hours. In the last months of his rule, when his promises
of reducing poverty and eliminating corruption had devaluated in the
face of economic disaster, his abuse of this law generated spontaneous
demonstrations of discontent. "Que se vaya el loco!" cried
"May the madman leave!" Poor and rich alike so complained
when their soap operas, newscasts and baseball games were interrupted
by Chavez's rambling speeches, which blamedpast governments, business
leaders and especially the media for the problems his own government
could not solve.
It was this abuse that led to the oil-soaked coup d'etat of April
11. An increasingly confrontational media helped mobilize the opposition
against him, and government supporters say media executives were part
of the plot to oust Chávez. The coup was unanimously hailed by
the TV stations - ironically to the point that critics of the interim
government had a hard time getting on air. The tables were turned: pro-Chávez
supporters were now subjected to their own news blackout. But on Saturday,
when the interim government dissolved, Chavistas took over the TV stations
and made them broadcast the state TV channel, loyal to the ousted leader.
Media executives and news directors said that they were afraid to let
their journalists out during that time because they would be lynched
by pro-Chavez mobs. However, as Venezuelan columnist Ibsen Martínez
says, TV executives didn't hesitate to let journalists play heroes
during the bloody events that led to the initial removal of Chavez.
Now Chavez is back in power, with the Venezuelan media overenthusiastically
leading the opposition. Will the media's new function as political
leaders - and their zealous antics - erase their hard-earned
credibility as free and independent newsmakers? Stay tuned - the
Venezuelan public certainly is.
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