Wrestling With the Regime: Chavez’s Communication Hegemony

This is part two of a two-part series

[read part one of this essay]

On February 2, 1999, former Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chávez (1954-2013), began a five-year term as elected constitutional President of Venezuela. From that day on, up until today, a new political regime (the Bolivarian regime) began to be implemented to replace the old Puntofijista government. Puntofijismo was a multiparty and voluntarist representative democracy built upon sophisticated strategies for oil rent distribution. The Puntofijista regime promoted the idea of a pluralist society where diverse interest groups and actors could participate as competing centers of power.

The new regime, Chávez argued, was based on a participatory and what Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe deemed “radical democracy.” Its implementation needed a new Constitution. Chávez successfully promoted the replacement of an older Constitution for the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, that was approved in 1999. Chávez was also successful in dramatically restructuring public institutions, their goals and the policies needed to achieve them. He declared all those changes were aimed at attaining a more equal and inclusive social order. He also declared the new kind of democracy he was aiming to implement would be more inclusive and popular that the old representative one. Over the next five years, Chávez gradually and steadily demolished the ancient regime preserving only the rentier structure of the petro state.

Many arguments could be made to justify the communication and media hegemony Chávez aimed to attain. However, the single most important factor explaining this goal was the inherent nature of the new political regime. Although Hugo Chávez and his allies implied that it was the comprehensive nature of the revolution that made it necessary for the regime to achieve a communication hegemony, it is possible to argue that this goal was fostered by the need to construct hate, and to eventually direct that hate towards domestic or foreign enemies. The construction of enemies at which hate could be aimed is an effective way to build a polarized society.

Chávez introduced a new way of making politics in Venezuela. His vision, akin to that developed by the political theorist Carl Schmitt during the times of Nazi Germany, was unknown to Venezuelans. Pragmatically, Chávez’s political practices were consistent with the definition of politics as, “the field of distinction between friend and enemy.” In terms of Schmitt´s definition of politics, the supporters of Chávez could be called friends and his opponents enemies. The then increasing crowd of Chávez supporters needed an antagonist crowd of opponents to gain cohesion and strength.

Elías Canetti, author of the exhaustive essay Crowds and Power, wrote: “The surest and often the only, way by which a crowd can preserve Itself lies in the existence of a second crowd to which it is related (…) the sight, or simply the powerful image, of the second crowd, prevents the disintegration of the first.” To a large extent, the regime expected that accusations of treacherous deeds committed by opponents to the government of Chávez would work as a glue to keep his followers tied to each other and strongly enthusiasts in their hatred. The many benefits of a politically polarized society were obvious to the new regime, and it always attempted to keep it alive. Since the beginning, the regime fostered a strong polarization of society.

 

Social Homogeneity

One of the benefits of polarization is social homogeneity. Chávez and his allies attempted to build an homogeneous and supporting society with neither opposition nor dissidence. Ideally, Chávez expected his followers to achieve a shared vision and a common identity. All those who differed from this vision would be excluded from enjoying the benefits of a variety of social programs or prevented from being contractors with the state. For example, the infamous Lista Tascón—a list prepared by the member of the National Assembly Luis Tascón with the names of all those who petitioned for the recall of Hugo Chávez as President of Venezuela in 2004—was allegedly used by public officials to discriminate against opponents.

Therefore, it could be argued that in a first stage, Chávez aimed at constructing with his discourse a collective identity common to his followers in order to make them increasingly homogeneous as a crowd. In a second stage, in his speeches, he would start talking of the need to merge two pieces of the ideal society he was envisioning, the military sphere (that was relatively easy to turn into an obedient and homogeneous body) and the civil sphere (encompassing all those whom he had identified as excluded), into a single homogeneous crowd where no distinctions could be made. That merged crowd would have been the perfect obedient body politic he expected to have casted out of the previously chaotic and heterogeneous social fabric the Venezuelan society was before him.

The redefinition of politics led by Chávez was one of the single most important factors that turned words and discourse into the main instruments the regime relied upon to achieve its goals. Before Chávez, no political leader had been such a strong believer in those two intangible instruments; in their nearly magical ability to shape reality, build collective identities, reach the hearts of his adherents and sympathizers and construct hatred. Within this conceptual frame it is possible to understand the extent to which Chávez —more than any other authoritarian leader (in Venezuela)—deemed media to be the perfect complement and instrument to achieve his political goals.

For a leader like Chávez, who had an extraordinary rhetorical ability, words woven into a seamless speech represented a more effective way to shape reality than public policies developed to address actual social and economic problems. This conviction led Chávez to believe he should, above all, talk to his people, and to keep on talking. Evidence of this compulsive talking were the 378 editions he made of the Sunday talk show Aló Presidente. In addition to this show, Chávez made an average of more than 200 hundred National Blanket Broadcasts per year between 2000 and 2010. These two figures provide evidence of the importance Chavez granted to his words woven into an uninterrupted discourse. Media were to be the main vehicle to disseminate that discourse. Communication and media hegemony was a natural, expected goal. Therefore, independent critical media were perceived by Chávez as a serious interference to his attempt to shape reality, as well as the minds and hearts of his followers.

Creating a Pro-Regime Reality

In second place, media hegemony is an instrument expected to contribute to the dissemination of a biased, pro-regime version of reality as well as of its performance. Critical media have been the main source of information on the actual achievements (failures) of the regime. Since 1999, independent media were quite often the only ones to inform on the variety of economic and social problems that were affecting the Venezuelan population. The official media, and so-called community (local) media, have only propagated a non critical version of reality where problems are non existent, dismissed, or covered with a thick makeup.

Declarations of high level officials of the regime usually neglect, deny or dismiss economic and social problems addressed by independent media. These declarations insinuate these ideas are delusional, more likely the outcome of either a wrong psychological perception of the population ("insecurity is an illusion, it is actually the outcome of a misperception") or a conspiracy ("food and medicine´s shortages are the outcome of a domestic economic war financed by foreign groups") planned by opponents, media, oligarchs, whoever the regime decides to blame and, eventually, put in prison. The empahsis on building such a biased sweetened version of reality significatively increases in the months preceding a new election. Media, then, are also a useful instrument to win elections.

 

Controlling Visibility

Finally, media hegemony has been an instrument of the regime to keep the opposition leaders off the public arena, or at least cornered, relegated to the presence in just a few (private) members of the broadcast and mass national and regional media, since official, community (state-financed), and other controlled media would be prevented from covering their live press conferences and statements. On the other hand, opposition leaders are nearly absolutely absent from official TV and radio channels, both during political campaigns and during normal times.

Disenchantment, a term borrowed by Max Weber from Friederich Schiller when the former was attempting to understand the modernization process associated with the Enlightenment, is used in this text to describe the process of disillusion that is still taking place in the Venezuelan society at large, and, specifically amongst the chavistas, former followers of Chávez. In June 2014, less than fifteen months after Chávez passed away, and less than fourteen months after Nicolás Maduro was elected President, the Venezuelan polling company Alfredo Keller published evidence of a 69 percent disapproval of the regime´s economic policies and 60 percent disapproval of the Nicolás Maduro’s Administration. In January 2015, according to a poll conducted by Venezuelan company Datanálisis, the approval of Nicolás Maduro´s Administration dropped to 22 percent. These figures suggest that the process that had once promised to deliver the maximum amount of happiness to Venezuelans was already widely showing its failures (multi-sector shortages, two digit inflation rate, unstoppable crime rates, etc). Even in an environment where the government has such strong control of the media, the population has lost faith in the potential of the "process" to deliver what it once promised.

The regime has run out of words, discourse, arguments, and promises. It finds itself unable to disguise reality, to mask the serious problems it has not addressed. The gap between what matters to the people—the problems they expect to be effectively addressed—and what matters to the regime—to remain in power as long as possible—has grown too large. Previously, the space of non-congruence had been disguised by a discourse, produced and articulated by a strongly charismatic leader who had been able to successfully persuade his followers that the process he was conducting would bring them future happiness, plus identity ("I am talking to you, you who were previously invisible"), and vindication ("you are the legitimate owners of the vast Venezuelan wealth, not them, the entrepreneurs, the bankers, the oligarchs, etc."). But with time, those strategies of political rhetoric withered, decayed, lost their effectiveness.

With disenchantment, like an epiphany, came a slowly rising awareness in the Venezuelan population; an awareness that provides evidence of a failure of the regime in its aim of building a media hegemony. Although it is still blurred, the disenchantment has given rise to a still incipient lucidity that allows increasingly wider groups of the population to realize that they had been lied to. Definitely, this enlightenment was triggered, to a large extent, by critical voices, formerly coming from heavily attacked (and now weakened) independent media (e.g. El Nacional, Globovisión before being sold or Tal Cual), and lately from digital online media (such as runrun.es, efectococuyo, armando.info, poderopedia.org, among others) and digital social networks such as Twitter.

Even though the influence of all these media is currently diminished, they are still contributing to illustrate and enlighten the Venezuelan population on the fallacies, omissions, falsehoods that had been so pervasive in the official account of reality. Besides independent media, the 2014 street rallies (promoted by opposition leaders, students, and other civil society actors), also played a role in raising awareness in the Venezuelan population on the country´s critical situation regarding human rights violations, repression of opposition leaders, unrestrained violence, and worsening economic crisis, amongst other issues.

It would be possible to argue that the posited disenchantment is associated with a change in the Venezuelan population’s perception of the nature of the regime. Until a relatively recent past, tied to Chávez’s passing, an amazing ambiguity surrounded the regime, permanently masking its real nature. At times it seemed to be a democracy, other times, a dictatorship. Today, that ambiguity has vanished. The regime is now widely perceived as an unequivocal competitive authoritarianism evolving into a conventional dictatorship.

The story told in this text has aimed at presenting independent media as actors with epic tasks. Their story has been less a Darwinian survival-of-the fittest-kind-of-struggle and more the Hamletian dilemma of a wide group of entrepreneurs, editors,  journalists, op-ed writers who decided to "take arms against a sea of troubles" due to a sense of responsibility to objective information, truth, ethics, and basic human rights (such as freedom of information and freedom of speech). They simply did what they thought they had to do. And this consideration refers to the idea that all them have behaved as activists, defending the right of the population to information and free speech.

Could things reverse? Could the past and lost ambiguity that previously surrounded the current Venezuelan regime make a come back and disguise (daze) the Venezuelan people (and foreign analysts) once more, making both of them unable to notice the dark features associated with its authoritarian nature?

Things have changed now, and in order to perform the new roles expected from the surviving independent media, they will have to overcome past and new obstacles and threats imposed by the government and imagine new strategies aimed at making them financially viable, communicatively relevant and operationally safe. In addition to the role these media have played in the past, keeping the Venezuelan population aware of the increasing failures and decreasing successes of the regime’s public policies, the media are currently entering a phase when they will have to learn how to safely and feasibly address, serious and dangerous issues such as: violation of human rights, repression of dissidents, and pervasive corruption crimes.

Lorenzo Dávalos is a public policy consultant and editor based in Caracas, Venezuela. He holds a Bachelor's in biology from Universidad Simón Bolívar and an MBA from IESA. He is a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics. Lorenzo also worked as researcher and consultant for organizations and strategic planning.