The armed attack on Globovisión, Venezuela’s last truly independent television network, in August is a wake-up call to armchair socialists everywhere. President Hugo Chávez, your revolutionary hero, is a dictator, a common thug.
The attack, which injured a guard and a police officer, was conducted by members of the UPV, a radical amalgam of chavistas (Chávez supporters) proudly wearing their emblematic red berets. Although Interior Minister Tareck El Aissami distanced the administration from the violence, make no mistake: this is a militia armed and funded by Chávez himself.
Since 2006 Chávez has boasted of arming militias “in every city block”, calling them “committees in defence of the revolution”. La Piedrita, the most renowned and feared militia group, joined the UPV at the Palace of Justice to show solidarity with Lina Ron, a famed chavista who led the Globovisión attack.
A Globovisión cameraman and his assistant who filmed the attack are now held in a barracks in Barquisimeto, joining more than 2,200 political prisoners already in Chávez’s clutches, prosecuted merely for criticising the government. A new law on “media crimes” will greatly swell their ranks: it enables the government to imprison any journalist who “harms the interest of the state”. Meanwhile, the government has revoked the licences of dozens of radio stations.
Chávez and the media go way back. In 1992, he became a cult hero after a one-minute television appearance to say his coup attempt had failed “for now”, “por ahora“, a phrase still emblazoned across billboards and television screens. Since becoming president, Chávez has exercised blanket control over the media, which he forces to carry all his propaganda, speeches and incitement to mob violence.
When I criticised Chávez’s media control in interviews on Newsnight and Al Jazeera last February, I garnered a barrage of four-letter-word emails, calling me an “imperialist oligarch” who should “stay away from Latin America”. Angriest of all were Britons and Americans who had never been to South America but want to believe in a tropical paradise where revolutionaries are fighting the good fight.
I got a taste of the then-nascent “media crimes” law in April, when I landed in Caracas to visit my brother after a work trip to Colombia. The immigration officer scribbled “journalist” across the front of my immigration card, set it on a special pile and told me I would be monitored while in the country. My Venezuelan passport has not been renewed in more than 18 months; my calls and emails to the Venezuelan consulate in London go unanswered. My brother, vice-president of an opposition newspaper whose editor-in-chief once challenged Chávez for the presidency, is now making plans to leave the country.
So forgive my anger with Chávez’s celebrity acolytes like Sean Penn, Danny Glover, Oliver Stone, Ken Livingstone and Naomi Campbell, who calls Chávez her “rebel angel”. If they’re such fans, perhaps they should move from Los Angeles and London to Caracas, where they are three times more likely to be shot and eight times more likely to be kidnapped than ten years ago, when Chávez took power. But then they have an awful lot in common with him: none of them would be who they are without the media.