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.
An impromptu song, which normally indicates that the speech is nearing its end, followed the denunciation of the pope, but this time the speech continued. There was a shortish (30-minute) historical detour, much of it to do with Bolívar and how he had been let down by men in the pay of the local aristocracy/oligarchy: ‘The history books at school never taught us about these betrayals.’ And then there was a discussion of planetary survival before the speech ended with a slogan borrowed from Cuba in bad times: ‘Socialism or Death.’ It’s a truly awful message. When I pointed out to one of Chávez’s aides how threatening this sounds, he explained that the president was in Rosa Luxemburg mode. What he really meant was ‘Socialism or Barbarism.’ I’m not convinced.
Chávez seemed to be slightly subdued and I wondered whether the audience he was really addressing wasn’t the army rank and file. The next day, the former vice-president, José Vicente Rangel, told us that there had been a US-Colombian plot to infiltrate Colombian paramilitaries, including snipers, into Venezuela. The aim, he said, had been to create a national emergency: government members and leaders of the opposition would be assassinated and each side would blame the other. A plot to assassinate Chávez involving three senior army officers was uncovered around the same time. Two of the would-be assassins are in prison; the third reportedly fled to Miami.
Chávez’s military studies taught him that the enemy must never be reduced to desperation, since this only makes them stronger. His strategy is to offer escape routes. He and his supporters are not vindictive, and the Western media chorus portraying his regime as authoritarian is wide of the mark. It was in full voice when I was in Caracas. The cause this time was a privately owned TV station (RCTV) whose 20-year licence the government had refused to renew. RCTV, in common with most of the Venezuelan media, was involved in the 2002 coup against Chávez’s (democratically elected) government. RCTV mobilised support for the coup, falsified footage to suggest that Chávez supporters were killing people, and when the coup failed didn’t show any images of Chávez’s triumphant return. A year later they made lengthy appeals to the citizens to topple the government during an opposition-engineered oil strike. Again, they were not alone, but their appeals actively encouraged violence.
Asked by a Guardian reporter whether I supported the decision, I said I did. He was shocked: ‘But now the opposition is without its TV channel.’ I asked whether the opposition in Britain or anywhere else in Europe or America had ‘its TV’? Which Western government would tolerate any of this? Thatcher refused to renew Thames TV’s franchise, and it had merely shown one critical documentary. Blair sacked Greg Dyke and neutered the BBC. Bush has the luxury of uncritical news channels, and Fox TV as a propaganda network.
I warned against an obsession with the power of the media at the conference. After all, Chávez won six elections despite near universal media opposition. Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador also won despite unremitting opposition. And this wasn’t true only of South America. The French voted against the European Constitution without the support of a single daily newspaper or TV station.
Four days later I was at another conference – this time ‘defending humanity’, something I often do – in Cochabamba in Bolivia. I was last there forty years ago as part of a four-man team (the others were Perry Anderson, Robin Blackburn and Ralph Schoenman) sent by Bertrand Russell to attend the trial of Régis Debray in Camiri, not far from where a besieged Che Guevara was fighting to escape the Bolivian army. Debray had been captured while attempting to leave the guerrilla encampment and head home. I had also been asked by the Cubans to photograph every Bolivian army officer in the region. This got me into trouble a few times. On one occasion a colonel, pistol drawn, walked up to me and asked for the film. I gave him a blank roll. ‘If you take any more photographs of me,’ he said, ‘I’ll shoot you.’ I didn’t. These photographs and others (including one of Robin Blackburn having a long shower) were dispatched to Havana, where they must still be held in some ageing archive.
Cochabamba was where the US Military Advisory Group, which was supervising the operation to capture and kill Guevara, established its HQ. And it was to Cochabamba that I fled from Camiri in 1967 after being briefly arrested, accused of being a Cuban guerrilla called Pombo, Che’s bodyguard and one of those who escaped the encampment and returned safely to Cuba. I holed up there till I could get a flight to La Paz and a connection to Europe via Brazil. Hearing me reminisce with Richard Gott, who was also defending humanity, and who had been the Guardian’s chief Latin America correspondent in 1967, a young Telesur journalist from Madrid said: ‘God. It’s just like listening to Spanish Civil War veterans returning to Spain.’
Bolivia has a large Indian population: 62 per cent describe themselves as indigenous; 35 per cent live on less than a dollar a day. It has a turbulent history: wars, coups, revolutions, the odd guerrilla foco and numerous uprisings. There were 157 coups between 1825 and 1982 and 70 presidents, half of whom held office for less than a year. Neoliberal slumber lasted throughout the 1990s, before anti-government protests culminated in the ‘water wars’. The government sold the water in Cochabamba to Bechtel, who told people it was illegal to collect rainwater. There were clashes with the army, a young demonstrator was killed and the protesters won. The municipality regained control of the water. Such unrest created the basis for the triumph of Morales and the Movement for Socialism in the elections of 2005. Not only was Morales on the left, he was an Aymara Indian, and his victory ended a century and a half of Creole rule. The rich were furious. Within a few months, a campaign of destabilisation centred in the Creole stronghold of Santa Cruz had begun. ‘They predicted economic chaos,’ Rafael Puente, a former government minister and Jesuit priest, told us. ‘They said Bolivia would become another Zimbabwe. They accused Evo of starting a civil war. They exchanged doctored photographs on their cell phones depicting their elected president bleeding from a gunshot wound in the head with the words “Viva Santa Cruz” painted above him in blood.’ The government went ahead and carried out its election promises, nationalising energy resources and taking direct control of operations. The increase in state revenues was to be used to help poor families keep their children at school. The government aimed to reduce poverty by 10 per cent, a modest enough aim, but the Santa Cruz businessmen screamed ‘Communism!’ When economic conditions improved, the opposition moved on to Morales’s relationship with Chávez. The walls of Santa Cruz were plastered with posters reading ‘Evo, Chola de Chávez’ (chola is the word for ‘Indian whore’). When one looks at the newspapers here it is hard to work out which man they hate more.
Richard Gott and I wandered around Cochabamba. The Paris Café on the Plaza de 14 Septembre was still there, looking much less dilapidated. The Roxy cinema where I watched Lee Marvin and Jane Fonda in Cat Ballou has also survived, although it is now an evangelical church. Gott insisted that we visit La Cancha. This is the indigenous market opposite the old railway station, reminiscent of an Arab bazaar with its narrow lanes, and commodities transported by wheelbarrow; among other things it has to offer is the most ravishing assortment of multi-coloured potatoes anywhere in the world. Little has changed since 1967, though the quality seems to have declined a bit. I bought two cheap tin plates painted with flowers, which turned out to have been made in China.
Back at the hotel I was ambushed by a Spanish journalist from El Mundo: ‘You’ve described Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba and Ecuador as an axis of hope. What is your axis of evil in this continent?’ I told her that I avoid the terms good and evil because they are religious concepts, but that my axis of despair consists of Brazil, Chile and Mexico. ‘Could you please add the Dominican Republic?’ asked Scheherazade Vicioso, a feminist poet. ‘We’re always being ignored.’ I did so. Then I asked the reason for her name. Her father, a composer, adored The Thousand and One Nights. ‘I got off lightly, she added. ‘My brother is called Rainer Maria Rilke.’
I left on an early morning flight. An Indian, his back bent, a brush in each hand, was cleaning the streets. Waiting in Caracas for another plane I flicked through the guest book in the VIP lounge. Two messages summed up the contradictions. The first was from Ahn Jung Gu, the president of Samsung in South America: ‘Venezuela is one of the core markets for Samsung. We will continue to invest here and contribute development to this market.’ A few entries later: ‘Dear President Chávez and Venezuela. Thank you for the love and hospitality of your people. In love and peace. Cindy Sheehan, USA.’