By Marco Aponte-Moreno
Last month, Venezuela made the cover of the international edition of Time magazine with the headline “Venezuela is dying.” Little was it known that on Sept. 1, in one of the largest protests in the history of the country, the people of Venezuela would show the world that their country is very much alive.
The march, called “The Storming of Caracas” by government opponents, drew more than 1 million people. Their demand: Hold a referendum this year to revoke President Nicolás Maduro’s term in office. Venezuela’s television channels, which in recent years have faced threats and attacks by the government, downplayed the march. Government-controlled channels focused on a much smaller counter-demonstration staged by Maduro’s socialist party. However, news of the protest spread like wildfire across social media.
According to the Venezuelan Constitution, if a referendum puts an end to Maduro’s term before Jan. 10, new presidential elections will have to be held within a month of the vote. However, if the referendum doesn’t take place until after Jan. 10, the vice president will become president, keeping Maduro’s socialist party in power until January 2019.
Due to years of mismanagement and corruption by the socialist government, this oil-rich nation’s economy is on the brink of collapse. The fall in oil prices, from $110 per barrel two years ago to approximately $45 today, has turned economic decline into catastrophe.
As a result, severe shortages of basic goods, lack of medicine, and hyperinflation are driving people to the edge. Venezuelans spend hours waiting in line to buy food, but often find supermarkets shelves bare. To top it all, the country has one of the world’s highest murder rates, with 28,000 homicides in 2015 according the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, an independent local non-governmental organization.
Meanwhile, Maduro and his ministries have tried to blame the crisis on an “economic war” and a “media war” planned by Venezuelan elites and orchestrated by the United States. Maduro says that he will not give up power, even though his approval rating has sunk to 24.3 percent.
On Wednesday, during the annual conference of the Development Bank of Latin America (CAF), U.S. Vice President Joe Biden referred to the referendum in his opening speech: “The recall in Venezuela should take place before the end of the year.” Delcy Rodríguez, Venezuela’s minister of foreign affairs, immediately tweeted that her country rejects Biden’s “insolence and interventionist tone.” Despite the anti-American rhetoric of Maduro’s government, Venezuela remains the third largest supplier of oil to the United States, after Canada and Saudi Arabia.
Harassment of the Press
In the run-up to the Sept. 1 protest, Venezuela’s government systematically barred foreign journalists from entering the country.
John Otis of NPR, who has covered the South American nation for 19 years, was deported last week as soon as he arrived in Venezuela to cover the protest. Marie-Eve Detoeuf, a correspondent from the French newspaper Le Monde, and César Moreno, an on-air journalist from Caracol, Colombia’s most popular radio station, met the same fate. Meanwhile, at the end of August, Miami Herald correspondent Jim Wyss and a crew from Al Jazeera were detained and expelled as soon as they arrived in the country.
These attacks on the press are not new in Venezuela. Under former President Hugo Chávez, the country saw some of the most serious incidents of press repression in recent years. In 2007, Chávez’s government drew worldwide criticism after refusing to renew the broadcast license of RCTV, Venezuela’s oldest TV network. According to Chávez, the network incited the 2002 coup against him.
The government’s attacks against the media seem to have intensified since the possibility of revoking Maduro’s presidency was put on the table. On Aug. 30, a pro-government group threw explosives and excrement at El Nacional, the main independent newspaper in the country.
A week earlier, gunmen fired at the headquarters of Diario de Los Andes, a prominent newspaper in the west of the country. In June, the headquarters of another newspaper, Correo del Caroní, were vandalized. Its editor, David Natera Febres, is currently in prison on charges of defamation after his paper uncovered an extortion ring in the mining industry led by an army colonel.
In August, the special rapporteurs on freedom of expression from the United Nations and the Organization of American States expressed their serious concerns about the situation to the Venezuelan government. On Sept. 2, the press freedom group Reporters Without Borders denounced the increasing lack of respect for freedom of expression in Venezuela since the beginning of the year.
Reporters Without Borders noted that “the Venezuelan government never implemented any of the 12 recommendations on freedom of expression that were made during Venezuela’s Universal Periodic Review by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011.”
This systematic harassment of the press has gone hand in hand with the increasing erosion of democracy in Venezuela. According the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2015, Venezuela is the least democratic country in Latin America after Cuba.
The Villa Rosa Effect
On Sept. 3, Braulio Jatar, director of the Venezuelan news website Reporte Confidencial, was detained on charges of money laundering. The arrest took place the day after Jatar reported on a video of a local demonstration in Villa Rosa, a poor district on Margarita Island in the northeast of the country. In this video, protesters bang pans, a common form of protest in Venezuela, while the president flees from his angry constituents.
Jatar was the first journalist to report on this embarrassing incident, which has since been shared by thousands of people on social media. The New York Times covered the story and posted the video.
The government reacted swiftly, arresting some 30 people in connection to the Villa Rosa protest. Braulio Jatar is the only one who remains detained. On his Twitter account, Human Rights Watch’s Americas Director José Miguel Vivanco posted in Spanish, “@NicolasMaduro made @BraulioJatarA pay for the banging of pans against him in Margarita #VZLAcrisis.” The tweet has since been shared hundreds of times.
Given the increasing repression of the press, social media has become the primary vehicle to spread news in Venezuela. Braulio Jatar’s sister, Ana Julia Jatar, who lives in Boston, broke the news about her brother’s arrest by tweeting a home-made video in which she pleas for the circulation of the news through social media. The video has been shared thousands of times.
Taking advantage of the momentum generated by the Sept. 1 protest and the Villa Rosa incident, the Venezuelan opposition is ready to continue demonstrating, both on the streets and online. The next protest, “The Storming of Venezuela,” is planned for Sept. 16.
Venezuela is alive and kicking, despite the government’s attacks on the press. The death of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution, represented by Maduro’s administration following the death of Hugo Chávez, may not be televised, but it will certainly be circulated on social media.
Marco Aponte-Moreno is an assistant professor of global business at Saint Mary’s College of California. He is originally from Caracas, Venezuela.
[Photo courtesy of SoyMAM]