July 14, 2003 – Catia TV in Caracas, a community television station that is not merely at the service of the community but, rather, is directed by the local people, has just been closed in a maneuver more often seen under the old military dictatorships: The orders came from the current Metropolitan Mayor of Caracas, Venezuela (and an ex-”journalist”): Alfredo Peña, supporter of the attempted coup d’etat of April 2002 that Catia TV, among others, defeated.
Catia TV brings a very different form of television to (and from) the public than that of the Commercial stations. The programs, interviews, the operation of the equipment, the editing, and the organization of this Community Media outlet – that broadcasts from the poor neighborhoods in East Caracas – is constructed by the men, women, elders, and children. who live there… all the people, mobilizing daily. That’s why it was shut down: to silence the voices that Catia TV made strong. The transmitter and other equipment have been seized.
Blanca Eekhout: CatiaTV started in 2000. I was director for just over 3 years. I was there until 2003. The project started with what are called CineClubs. We would show films on screens in popular neighbourhoods. The CineClub movement started in the 1960s, but at the time it was linked to the client networks and patronage of the major political parties. In the 1980s, it moved away from that and gained a certain independence, and the CineClubs became instruments of the organized communities. Cinema can move people and we brought a lot of people out to watch films. Networks of people were created. It was a form of cultural resistance, part of a whole matrix of cultural resistance activities like megaphone radio where people would broadcast from the backs of vans or cars. In the mainstream media, the popular neighbourhoods, the barrios, they were shown as nests of crime. The media controlled the image of the barrio.
So this movement of cultural resistance came from the barrios and surged there. A lot of the spaces where films were shown were just people’s houses.
I was involved in this from early on. In 1989 the whole process became much deeper. The government of Carlos Andres Perez, who had won the elections promising to return the country to paradise, imposed a harsh neoliberal program and there were riots in Caracas. The government sent the military and police to repress the riots, and hundreds, we think thousands, were massacred in the barrios. The media played an interesting role. On the one hand, the people’s voice, the voices of the barrios, found no outlet in the political parties or the media. Instead, the media were literally applauding and celebrating the massacre on television. The current president of RCTV was taped saying that “we” had “won a victory” after the massacre had occurred. It was more obvious than ever whose side the media was on.
On the other hand, though, it was the media’s reporting of riots in one place that acted as a call to revolt throughout the country. By reporting the revolt, they helped to generalize it. But then they silenced the people.
There were some organizations in the barrios that surged in response. I was involved in one of these, an ‘asamblea de barrios’.
In 1992, there was the uprising led by Hugo Chavez. Those of us who were cultural activists, we realized that we were really working without any proposal for change. There wasn’t any party or leadership for that kind of
thing: what we were doing was a kind of social weaving. But the uprising of
1992 brought a proposal for change throughout the country. Until then, our organizing in the barrios – I remember it – it was around very concrete, daily issues. Access to water, transport, basic necessities. That kind of organizing can lead to a certain level of mobilization. People who had gone without water access for ten years, people who had to walk for water and fill buckets at common cisterns, they would mobilize to change that. But there was not really an accompanying political discourse. And to be honest, the left didn’t have any credibility to put such a discourse forward in any case.
People believed in our work and the basic fights for dignity. But Chavez managed to accomplish in two minutes on television what we weren’t able to accomplish in years. They gave him two minutes on television so he could tell those who had risen up to surrender and prevent a massacre. During the broadcast he said two key things. First, he said “I take full responsibility”, which was something people had never heard from any politician or public figure before. Second, he said “For now”, we have to lay down our arms, but that “for now” became a promise of a struggle for something better. The uprising put forward the idea that there could be an alternative political project for the country.
I saw the effect in the barrio. My house was filled all the time with people saying: “Can you believe this?” “Can you believe what Chavez said?” And it wasn’t just what he said. It was that he was someone who looked like them: with his black, indigenous looks. People felt represented for the first time.
The media image of Venezuela up to that time had been empty: a rich country, an oil country, a country of beauty queens. Not a country of people waking up at 4am so they could be exploited at work for a pittance to try to keep their families alive. No one could believe someone was on television saying: “I am responsible.” We had always thought of the military as a part of the system we were fighting. How could someone from the military actually sacrifice his own freedom, go to jail, to fight for change?
Podur: For those of you who were activists before Chavez, was there as a result a lot of distrust of him?
Eekhout: I myself have been imprisoned twice. I know how the military and police treated people. They didn’t have any respect for people. We didn’t have a lot of trust for Chavez, with his military background and his attempt at a coup. But all around us, people were just amazed to see a young, moreno, mestizo on television.
It’s also important to remember that the rebellion in 1992 was of very young officers. The highest rank involved in the rebellion was Lieutenant Colonel.
Those above that rank were solidly against the rebellion and with the system.
Eekhout: People started making videos with no training. Attendance at our events exploded. People were now seeing themselves on television. The first videos were just registries. People would tape the street corner, the dog on the corner, the people hanging out on the corner, the local shop, the local graffiti. The next step was films about local sporting events, or assemblies, or parties. My college thesis was on ‘barrio cinema’, the internal discourses and how barrio events are weaved through the cinema. The next step in the process was decisive: the activists in the struggle for water, in the ‘asamblea popular del agua’, began to use film as a tool for their struggle. The camera became a weapon: we would tape officials coming to the community and making promises, and use the film to hold them accountable. This film movement started to become the cables of a network to connect the community. A network of barrio news was created, based on creating and passing these films.
The Constitution provided a legal framework for community media. Until then, community media were essentially illegal. But the media activists participated in the constitutional process and got communication established as a human right. So community media were not only supposed to be legal, but protected and developed as a human right like health care or education.
That was how CatiaTV started. Communication was in the constitution, but there was no regulation. The regulatory structures for the media were still based on the old republic, the 4th republic (since the 1999 Constitution we are in the 5th republic). The regulatory body, CONATEL, is designed to regulate the corporate media. That was a major task for the movements: to force compliance with the constitution. Of course, the managers of CONATEL, with their neoliberal idea of the state, their idea of “neutrality”, just didn’t get it.
So we obtained an a broadcaster and began broadcasting in Catia, without waiting for CONATEL, and thus were broadcasting ‘illegally’.
Podur: How did you get the equipment?
Eekhout: In Rubio, there were very technically skilled people at the university who knew how to make antennas. They were very sympathetic to our cause, but they didn’t have any connections to the movements. So we were close to the people but not the technology, they were close to the technology but not the people. We put our experiences together and started broadcasting.
At the beginning of 2000, President Chavez was in Catia for a public event.
Some of our people went to interview him, identifying themselves first as being from “CatiaTV, community television.” He said: “What do you mean, community television?” When he heard what we were doing, he realized how important it was to support it. But other members of the government didn’t realize. We planned an inauguration and invited the President to attend. His staff told him he couldn’t, because CatiaTV was illegal. The President replied that it was legal according to the constitution, and the regulations would have to catch up. Finally, some changes were made to the regulations, and CatiaTV became official.
Podur: CatiaTV and ViVe are state media, but they are also community media.
Isn’t there a contradiction there?
Eekhout: There is no possibility for people’s participation in the private media. The only space where there was even a possibility is the state media.
But there are contradictions. There are definitely two conflicting models.
One is that of a state TV network, with a state budget. The administration of this network is controlled by the state. And the state is still, even after all of the changes that have been made, it is still a state that is conceived in the framework of neoliberalism, based on the idea of management and ‘efficiency’. Those of us from activist backgrounds discovered that in some ways there were fewer headaches when we were working without state support! The neoliberal model of the media does not put the community and the people at the centre of things. It is about creating spectators who watch TV alone in their homes. We don’t want spectators. We want communication. We are critical of the media. We want to give tools – cultural, educational, social, economic tools – to the communities. In the communication sphere we want to create the kinds of tools that exist in the economy, like the Banmujer and microcredit initiatives that have helped people empower themselves.
Podur: Are there structural ways that you have tried to break with hierarchy?
Eekhout: At CatiaTV, those first people who learned how to use the cameras to make those first films about the community, they are now the directors. I left the directorship of CatiaTV to come here. But CatiaTV also has a permanent assembly, and after a director’s term is up, they go back to the assembly. The assemblies have university people on them as well as people who have just learned how to read through the missions. There is a very strong ethic that the university people should not take over or monopolize the assembly. It is not just the sensitivity of the university people that enforces this: it is also that the working people in the assembly would not allow it.
We have a setup here where the maintenance staff can train to learn the camera and start to do production work, administrative staff can participate in production. There’s more of an open situation so that different departments can understand the different tasks that go on. It is a slow process, but we are trying to break with the hierarchies. Not only within the station, but also in terms of the relationship between ‘viewers’, the ‘viewed’, and the media workers. It is practice that is making the process stronger.
Blanca Eekhout is now the director of ViVe, the Venezuelan state television network.
Telesur is a new pan-Latin American TV channel based in Venezuela. It aims to rival CNN and the other Spanish-language news channels coming out of Miami and Atlanta.
Some have already dubbed it Al-Bolivar – a combination of the Arabic news channel, Al-Jazeera, and President Hugo Chavez’s favourite independence hero.
But there is still a long way to go. The cement-mixers and welders are working flat out in a long-abandoned annex, off the back of Venezuelan state TV.
This is where Telesur will have its main studio. By the end of September there should be 40 journalists working here and in bureaux across the continent – putting out a 24-hour mix of news, documentaries and movies, all with the stamp “made in Latin America”.
The first pre-recorded programmes are due to begin transmission at the end of July.
But Telesur’s test signal is already on the air – giving a taste of what’s to come. One promo promises an investigation into “the hidden threads of Plan Colombia”, the $3bn US-funded drug-eradication programme in Colombia.
“Who will judge”, the soundtrack asks, “the US military personnel caught trafficking drugs and arms in Colombia?”
Most of the money for Telesur comes from Venezuela. But the governments of Argentina, Uruguay and Cuba are also backing it.
Talks with Brazil are stalled, partly because the government there is trying to get its own continental TV project off the ground.
Telesur’s president, Venezuelan Communications Minister Andres Izarra, sees the channel as an essential pre-requisite for closer political and economic links across Latin America.
“We’re launching Telesur as an initiative to integrate through communication the different countries of the region,” he told the BBC.
“It’s a window, so we can get to know each other better.”
VENEZUELA KICKS OFF SPACE EFFORT
Venezuelan scientists are going to China to begin work on Venezuela’s first satellite – the first step on the way to a national space programme. President Hugo Chavez has earmarked around $0.5bn (£287m) to get the space agency off the ground in 2007.
The 30 scientists will be joined by another 60 next year to build the satellite along with China. Venezuela’s government hopes to use it to broadcast many of its own radio and TV programmes throughout Latin America.
The Simon Bolivar satellite, named after the Venezuelan independence hero, is supposed to be launched into space by August 2008. Mr Chavez wants the satellite to be blasted into orbit from a Venezuelan launch pad.
The leftwing president is using part of his country’s oil wealth to become a member of an elite club of nations which have their own space programmes. The Venezuela government intends to put several satellites into space, some of which will be used for geological surveys of the Earth. Venezuela’s military will play a key role in the space programme and so the satellites could eventually be used to gather intelligence.
ROOM TO SELF-ORGANIZE
The programs are impressive in record alone. Under Venezuela’s numerous social missions, 1.3 million have learned how to read, millions have received medical attention, and some 35-40% of the population now shops at subsidized, government-owned supermarkets. What is remarkable about the social, political, and economic transformations taking place in barrios like 23 de Enero, however, is not just the investment of resources towards programs for the poor and historically oppressed, but that such programs have been organized in such a way to empower communities and enable people to self-organize. So, for example, people are constitutionally entitled to gain land title to barrio homes built on squatted land, but must first band together as neighbors and form land committees. The Constitution further institutionalizes a basis for collectively owned forms of production, and the state, instead of centralizing such collectivized production, has enabled and encouraged a proliferation of community-based cooperatives, neighborhood organizations, and worker-managed industries. So while Chavez declares that Venezuela is undergoing a socialist revolution, the proliferation of cooperatives and neighborhood councils under his regime reminds one more of revolutionary Spain in 1936 than, say, the Soviet Union during the same period.
But if there is anything I really learned from my visit to Barrio 23 de Enero, it is that the Chavez government, while at once respected, supported, and even revered, is much less relevant to the ‘revolutionary process’ than one might expect. People see Chavez’s most significant role as allowing them to continue doing what they were already doing anyway – but legally, safely, and with financial support. So it is not actually a contradiction to hear a community member say, as I did, that he considers himself “a footsoldier for the revolutionary process” and then claim that it is grassroots, community based power that has enabled Chavez’s rule. “If these people, without any government help, could have built their own houses, taken their own electricity services, put in the first waterpipe system, and organized themselves in conditions of repression, that means we have power. And Chavez understands this.” What they their president doing is not giving people power, but dignifying the work they actually do, in the barrios and communities where they live. If he veers from this role, they have no qualms about removing him from office.