May 30, 2007
Venezuela is on fire. Triggered by a media shutdown over the weekend, tens of thousands of students from virtually every university, ranging from trade schools to military colleges to the most prestigious universities, and now high schools, are protesting in the streets of Caracas. It's Venezuela's longest nonstop street strike since March 2004.
It doesn't seem entirely peaceful this time. Most of the past ones were peaceful. This one is different. Sure, there were some agents provocateurs, but it looks like more than that. It's street rage in spontaneous combustion. Over 100 kids, some hurling rocks and bottles, have been arrested, and others have been tear-gassed, and shot at with rubber and real bullets. As motorcycle cops swirl, the streets are becoming burning barricades, with many roadblocked by cops. Gangs of young men on the Chavista side bunch in alleys and doorways, as anti-Chavez others roam around menacingly. It makes downtown Caracas resemble a scene from Blade Runner. Blogger Miguel, at the epicenter of it, says it took him eleven miles of weaving to get what's normally three miles home from work yesterday.
Despite these conditions, the protests aren't stopping. Cops are scattering kids with tear gas and those who are there say they just keep coming back in human waves. More ominous, the protests show no sign of burning out. They now have spread to outer cities like Valencia and Maracaibo. A huge new protest is scheduled for Friday.
At issue is Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez's arbitrary shutdown of the nationwide television network RCTV, which commands a 40% market share. It was not only big, the equivalent of CBS in the states, it was more popular. But unlike CBS, it was outspokenly anti-Chavez in its coverage, and unlike other Venezuelan TV stations, like Televen and Venevision, it refused to soften its coverage even under Chavista pressure. There's no doubt in anyone's mind that Chavez's rage at RCTV's coverage is why he shut the station by pulling its permit. He did so by decree, because he could never do an act like that in a democracy where 80% of the public loves the station.
No one saw this coming. In Caracas, observers are stunned at the youthful age of the kids in the streets, teenagers who can remember only Chavez as their president over the last eight years. Clearly, they haven't been remade in his new socialist model at all, but are rejecting it intensely. But there is bafflement over the flaming street rage over this. After all, Chavez has already stolen everything that hasn't been nailed down - oil companies, farms, hospitals, golf courses, apartment buildings by Marxist expropriation. This doesn't even count what's ripped off by corruption. Why the intensity of emotion on the shutdown of RCTV?
Protest signs give an important clue - most say 'Freedom' - not even press freedom, just plain freedom. Students feel that this expropriation is a theft of their freedom and they want it back. They recognize the simple principle that if even the biggest, richest critic of the regime can be destroyed by a vengeful dictator, what hope does a little individual voicing a mild criticism have to defend himself? They also love the station, with its criticism of Chavismo appealing to some, and its soap operas and Wheel of Fortune show appealing to others. In other words, the station represents choice, as well as sort of a dual ownership of the enterprise, of TV producers and TV watchers. To take the shows away doesn't just punish RCTV, it punishes the public which loves its product. And significantly, in a city with many poor people, television is the only entertainment they can afford. Now it's gone.
Attitudes are changing very rapidly about Hugo Chavez, even in poor areas. People are despairing of ever getting their own way while Hugo Chavez is around. Meanwhile, the wildcat character of the strikes has a very different feel from the Gandhi and Martin Luther King peaceful protests as a means of effecting political change. They can, but only in a democracy. And Venezuelans are rapidly realizing they are not in a democracy.
The ruling Chavistas are in a panic. They do not know what to do. Chavez himself mocked the protestors Tuesday and implied they were CIA agents - but Venezuelans noticed that he spoke from the naval airport near Caracas, a place from where dictators are known to flee the country. Venezuelans wondered if he was really that scared because it was an odd location. Meanwhile, other Chavistas have bared their fangs at other TV stations, vowing to shut them - Globovision, the last Venezuelan dissident station, a very tiny one that takes subscriptions and commands only a 5% market share, and CNN, whose fearless Kitty Pilgrim and others have done award-worthy reporting exposing the reality of Chavez's Venezuela for the past few years. Chavez has loudly cursed that reporting.
Venezuelans think that those stations will be shut soon. They don't want any more coverage of the protests that are engulfing Caracas. In their minds, shutting the stations will make information much harder to get. But there's too much momentum to really stop it - Caracas will just become a city of added tropical intrigue with people acting on rumors.
Even the most informed players in Caracas have absolutely no idea where this is going. It's not like the other blowups in the past few years. The rage is out of control and the protestors already know that Chavez and his men will get very violent and it doesn't seem to be deterring them. It probably won't dislodge the dictatorship, so far as is known now, but one wonders if this is the beginning of the end for Hugo Chavez.