By Jeremy Morgan
Latin American Herald Tribune staff
CARACAS – President Hugo Chávez has made it clear there’ll be no let-up in his offensive against private media organizations he considers hostile towards himself and his regime – and in doing so he’s revived a lot of old arguments as well.
In launching another verbal missile at his media critics, Chávez also waded into -- and in effect revived -- an age-old argument about his attitude towards private property. The right to own private property was enshrined in the Bolivarian Constitution adopted by referendum at his behest during his early days in power a decade ago.
But he’s been repeatedly accused of riding roughshod over his own rules more or less ever since. There’s a widespread suspicion among his critics that he doesn’t actually believe in the principle of any right to own private property.
But he’s still not quite saying that, even as he merged the media spat with the property argument into one issue during his regular Sunday radio and television broadcast last weekend.
“There is no private land,” he declared. “There may be occupiers and producers, but if they don’t produce well they lose the right to exploit it.” He was back to yet another old bunch of bogeyman – the large landowners or latifundistas as they’ve been known in Latin America since the days of yore.
In effect, or at least in terms of how it was interpreted by others afterwards, his argument seemed to be this: people could own property, but they couldn’t own the land on which it lay. In the wake of a recent string of takeovers, the implication of this was deemed to be that he could expropriate the land from under people owning private property.
“What are the latifundistas going to say?” He asked out loud. “That this is robbery. It’s the same thing that a thief says when he’s caught. “I’m innocent’.’’ Then he ordered National Land Institute President Carlos Loyo into action.
“To the attack! Authorized and approved,” Chávez declared, signing a decree for the takeover of five estates sitting on a total of 10,305 hectares in his home state, Barinas. National Assembly Deputy Wilmer Azuaje, a formerly pro-Chávez but now dissident legislator has raised questions -- so far largely unanswered -- about property acquisitions made by the president’s family.
Unconfirmed reports say the Chávez clan appears to own as many as 17 fincas or farmsteads in the state. Some of this property is supposedly held in the name of front men colloquially known as testaferos.
But Chávez’ main target for the day was the media, and although he didn’t name it specifically, most likely Globovisión, a private sector 24-hour news station that makes no effort to disguise its disdain for the president. And he was not just after the “oligarchy” but their allies in the middle classes, which tend to turn on Globovisión.
He sounded an alert to the “bourgeoisie” and the “pitiyanquis” – his epithet for Venezuelans who tend to look to and up to the United States. “Put yourselves to believing I’m not going to stand on one side,” he warned, “a little surprise could come your way at any moment.”
Chávez said he was quite willing to take action against “them” if they didn’t change their attitude – and this included not renewing their concessions and broadcasting licences. The airwaves were public, not private property, he said.
This was not necessarily an unreal threat. Only a 2 years ago, Chávez did just that to a licence held by Radio Televisión Caracas (RCTV) for 35 years. At the time, it was the oldest station in Venezuela.
RCTV’s still available with its mix of popular soaps, but only on cable and satellite. But there are questions about how long it’ll be before Chávez extends his retribution against the media beyond terrestrial stations.
Globovisión is the object of a “penal administrative procedure” by the National telecommunications Commission (Conatel) after it broadcast information about last Monday’s earthquake before government officials were ready to do so.
In what was taken as a clear reference to this case, Chávez said he was confident “state organizations in change of investigating possible violations of the law will carry out their tasks in full.”
This was taken to mean that Globovisión’s days might well already be numbered – and were that the case, Chávez was evidently not out to dispel any such impression. “This is going to stop,” he avowed, “if not, I’ll stop being called Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías.”
The response from Globovisión Monday, one week after the earthquake at the center of the controversy, was muted. It said that it had restricted its coverage in the immediate wake of the earthquake to data trawled from the United States Geological Survey. Globovisión Director Alberto Federico Ravell had appeared to call on the public for calm. This was what government ministers were doing not very much later on.
Opposition Metropolitan Mayor Antonio Ledezma aired the idea of the government wanting to close down independent stations to ensure that people didn’t hear the bad news. As an example, he cited crime, for which the government stopped issuing regular official figures many moons ago.
Ledezma said “only a dictatorial government” would be capable of threatening the media. Battle lines appeared to be drawing up as he vowed that the people would defend the rights of Globovisión and other private stations.
At the other end of the political spectrum, Douglas Gómez of the Venezuelan Communist Party, a minor ally of the PSUV, came out with all guns blazing. Globovisión was a nest of “counter revolutionary propaganda that has an impact on the imagination of the people,” he said. “If it were in our hands, it would be liquidated because it’s the enemy.”VenEconomy: Venezuela's Government Actions Make Your Blood Boil