The 1960s skyscrapers of Caracas seemed uglier than usual. The Hotel Gran Melia wasn’t very appealing either. The kitsch ceiling in the giant lobby was reminiscent of the Dubai School (why does oil wealth seem to result in such bad architecture?) and I wished I was staying, as I normally do, at the shabby, bare, miserable but atmospheric Hilton. I was in Caracas to speak at a conference on global media networks and to attend a meeting of the advisory board of the Spanish/Portuguese cable news channel Telesur – set up jointly by Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Cuba and now Ecuador. Intended to provide an alternative to the CNN/BBC worldview, the new channel has been a modest success, with between five and six million regular viewers. The privately owned channels devote hours of coverage to US Congressional results or a murder on a US campus: Telesur announces these events briefly and devotes the rest of the bulletin to live coverage from Nicaragua, where elections are taking place, or from Ecuador, where a referendum that will lead to the drafting of a new constitution has been won by the new government.
I first raised the idea of setting up a station to counter the Washington Consensus networks at a public meeting here in 2003. It was seized on quickly, but the name I suggested – al-Bolívar – was firmly rejected. It was inappropriate, I was told, since it would exclude the largest continental state, which had no links to the Liberator. In the event, Brazil excluded itself. ‘Why won’t you support Telesur?’ Chávez asked Lula. ‘I don’t know,’ he replied, shame-faced. The reason was obvious: he didn’t want to antagonise the Brazilian media or annoy Washington. But Telesur is starting to attract viewers in his country even so.
The conference centre was packed for Chávez’s speech. When we were all seated, he was whisked in and a few pleasantries exchanged. ‘You must be happy now that Blair is going,’ he said to me. I pointed out that my happiness was somewhat circumscribed by the succession. ‘Long live the revolution,’ he said, practising his English. Then we settled down for his three-hour address, which was being broadcast live. Occasions like this always make me wish I’d brought a picnic basket. The speech was pretty typical. Some facts (for example, that the increase in oil revenues brought about by charging more royalties amounts to a few billion dollars); homespun philosophy; autobiography; an account of his most recent conversation with Castro, together with a rough estimate of the length of time the two men have spent talking to each other (well over a thousand hours); his pride that the Venezuelan government is funding Danny Glover’s film about Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Haitian slave uprising; the horrors of occupied Iraq; a sharp attack on the pope for suggesting in the course of his recent visit to Brazil that the indigenous population had not been badly treated and had willingly embraced Christ.