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.
The full text of this diary is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 29 No. 14 · 19 July 2007
Perhaps sharing a podium with President Chávez has skewed Tariq Ali’s take on the recent closure of RCTV (LRB, 21 June). Despite the familiar charge that Bush has the ‘luxury’ of ‘uncritical news channels’, no channel in the US has been taken off the air because of its criticism of him and then replaced, the next day, by one broadcasting pro-Bush songs. The fact remains that Chávez, as Reporters Without Borders put it, ‘silenced Venezuela’s most popular TV station and the only national station to criticise him’, and replaced it with a pro-government propaganda outlet. The closure met with near universal condemnation across South America and among human rights groups. Polls indicated that up to 80 per cent of Venezuelans opposed the revoking of RCTV’s licence. Demonstrators protesting at the shutdown were dispatched with tear gas and rubber bullets. In considering all this Ali’s intervention is to warn ‘against an obsession with the power of the media’. Chávez, he tells us, ‘won six elections despite near universal media opposition’. If RCTV was so powerless, why bother to silence it?
Tariq Ali perpetuates some broadcasting myths: ‘Thatcher refused to renew Thames TV’s franchise, and it had merely shown one critical documentary. Blair sacked Greg Dyke.’ Thatcher abolished the Independent Broadcasting Authority after it failed to suppress Death on the Rock, only for it to be replaced by the very similar Independent Television Commission. The new rules for awarding ITV franchises, devised by the Home Office and the Treasury, were designed to damage the system, and did so. However, Thames TV ceased to be a broadcaster because it failed to bid enough for its London weekday franchise, and failed to bid at all for the weekend one. The fatal wounds were self-inflicted. As for Dyke, he was sacked by the BBC Board of Governors.
Vol. 29 No. 16 · 16 August 2007
Tariq Ali’s observation that ‘the French voted against the European Constitution without the support of a single daily newspaper or TV station’ is incorrect (LRB, 21 June). The national daily paper L’Humanité campaigned vigorously against it.
Vol. 39 No. 15 · 27 July 2017
Greg Grandin’s devious phrasing, supressio veri and baloney in his article on Venezuela (LRB, 29 June) should not be allowed to pass without comment, even in the intermittently Chavista pages of the London Review (see the predictably enamoured Richard Gott in the issue of 17 February 2000, and the reflections of Tariq Ali in the issue of 21 June 2007).
Grandin calls Chávez’s coup attempt of 1992 a ‘military revolt’, but refers to his fleeting removal from office in 2002, for which he and some of his followers were largely to blame, as a ‘Washington-blessed coup’. Washington had very little to do with it, and throughout the rule of Chávez and his successor the United States has taken the course of not responding to provocation.
To refer to the corruption of recent years with the sentence ‘bureaucrats and military officers were free to skim’ is a comic understatement. What’s more, Grandin makes no mention of the notorious involvement in the drug trade of the upper echelons of the regime, civil and military. ‘Colourful bombast’ is also an excessively benign description of Chávez’s truculent denigration of opponents, and Grandin makes no attempt to analyse the sort of guarantees the opposition can expect in elections. Perhaps he finds government manipulation colourful too.
The statement that ‘the private sector expanded during the Chávez years’ needs, to say the least, some substantiation and critical analysis. Who was investing in what? Good years for importing Humvees for the new elite, or speculating on exchange rates, but for productive investment? In agriculture? The economy is more dependent on its now sadly mismanaged oil sector than ever before. Grandin makes no mention at all of the country’s mountainous indebtedness to China and Russia.
Ignacio Ramonet, whose Chávez: My First Life is the subject of Grandin’s review, is an interviewer with a record of unsurpassable sycophancy, whose deference in a previous work seems to have surprised even Fidel Castro. The poll Grandin refers to at the end of the piece, according to which 79 per cent picked Chávez as ‘the best president the country has ever had’ (no indication is given of when or where or how it was taken), is simply ridiculous.
St Antony’s College, Oxford