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Venezuela's Two-Edged Sword: Media

Filed under: Venezuela

There's something of a revolutionary ferment in and around Venezuela's media. More so than any other Latin country. Maybe it's because Venezuela's billionaires, like Gustavo Cisneros, are media kings. Maybe it's because of the starry international appeal of the many Miss Venezuelas. For whatever reason, media is pivotal in Venezuela as an essential instrument of dynamism and change. That explains a lot about why RCTV is under such seige from Chavistas, as this excellent account from Daniel's Venezuela News & Views shows here.

It's also a two-edged sword.

On the one hand, the power of media in Venezuela has contributed signficantly to the rise of Hugo Chavez, whose persona and mastery of the colloquial speech, the raging diatribe, the entertaining tale, and even the song have propelled him to the top from obscurity as Venezuela's leader in 1998. It's not very well known here, but Hugo Chavez is a product of the Venezuelan boondocks, not a product of its cities, nor its experienced political establishments. He's a rube outsider from the outback of Barinas state near the Andes. But as a leader, he's managed to use media to propel him to stardom, a short route to power in a state with a calcified political power establishment. From there, he's kept with it, hosting his own reality television show as president.

He's simply a natural. In Chavez, anyone can see his star qualities from his early speeches. I have seen them and was struck by how full of magnetism he is. He seems to be talking right to you through the television set. It's only in later years that some sort of mask has formed over him, a signal of his growing guardedness. He still emits bursts of volcanic bile in his public addresses. But he doesn't have quite the same early charisma. He's also grown fat and sloppy as he becomes comfortable and complacent in his absolute power.

But if Hugo can master media, there are plenty of others who can innovate into it, too.

A very dramatic example of this is Carlos Ortega, the imprisoned former union boss who led the great oil strike of 2002-3. Ortega escaped from a Chavista military prison in August 2006, and has been in hiding for several months, with no one knowing where he is. His story is here. Now, taking a page from another escaped political prisoner, Governor Eduardo Lapi of Yaracuy state, Ortega has started using media to transmit messages to his people. Unlike Lapi, who writes letters, Ortega is using electronic television media. It's a very dangerous and rebellious thing to do in a system that no longer allows dissent.

Ortega might have borrowed this idea for this from, of all people, Osama Bin Laden, who also uses filmed messages to his followers as a way of leading them, too. Just as Bin Laden uses Al-Jazeera to transmit his terror messages to destroy America, so Ortega uses the popular Globovision station to transmit messages designed to rally his followers and fight an odious dictator who's oppressing his people. Media, after all, can transmit any message, good or bad, and this new means is ideal for a leader on the lam.

Ortega is a gutsy brawler of a union boss, whose daring defiance of Hugo Chavez began with the great oil strike of 2002-3 and extended from there. He's never feared Chavez, and he won his own union elections with powerful political support. That's why he scares Chavez - it's because of that proven record of winning elections and his fearlessness. That's why Hugo Chavez not only fired Ortega from his elected union boss job, he also threw him in prison. Ortega didn't let prison walls stop him though. He escaped, with the aid of his military guards, probably. Now Ortega's given Chavez another reason to fear him, he's using media beyond what even Chavez did to to rally Chavez's enemies. That's innovation.

What we may see is a YouTube revolution capable of taking out Hugo Chavez, his own mastery of television media superceded by the determined Carlos Ortega's innovations. Keep an eye on this new evolving development - in a dictatorship where all dissent is forbidden, YouTubes may be the final unbeatable path to democracy.

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