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Venezuela's media establishment was up to its collective ears in last week's failed coup. Related Gully Coverage

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Chávez supporters hold a poster of him during independence celebrations in Caracas, Venezuela, April 19, 2002. Mariana Bazo

Venezuela's Media: Free or Footloose?

by Juan Pérez Cabral

APRIL 21, 2002. Imagine the owners of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and NBC, ABC, CBS, and CNN meeting at the home of Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. with the head of the Joints Chiefs of Staff and assorted military top brass to plot to bring down U.S. President John Doe, a blowhard populist who has been elected by a landslide.

The plan is wickedly simple. Organize a massive march to the Washington, D.C. headquarters of Omnicom, the behemoth conglomerate that generates most of the country's riches, ostensibly to show support for their valiant struggle against the meddlesome, regulation-crazy Doe. Then, suddenly, turn the march around and head to the White House, which, your military co-conspirators tell you, will be left unguarded, to demand that Doe resign, or else ...

Marchers will be recruited among the wealthiest 20 percent of the population, including members of Jimmy Hoffa's new AFL-CIO, which only unionizes top wage earners. Hoffa, however, will be dumped the moment Doe is removed from the White House. He knows about the coup to dump Doe, but not about the coup within the coup now being hatched in Sulzberger's parlor to disband Congress, suspend the Constitution, fire all Supreme Court judges, kick out all state governors, and dismantle not just the entire Doe administration, but any and all aspects of the federal and state government structure the conspirators dislike.

The day before the march, the networks and hundreds of radio stations the conspiring media barons control, broadcast free ads for the march every 10 minutes. The march itself gets lavish live media coverage. So does the coup, er ... the democratic action by civil society. And the coup within the coup (which, officially, doesn't even exist).

One highlight is the live coverage of the arrest and near-lynching of a Doe cabinet member by angry 20 percenters. The whole country also sees and hears a Sulzberger minion, who also happens to be the Fortune 400 association's boss of bosses, proclaim himself interim President and destroy the U.S. constitutional structure with the stroke of a pen, to the thundering applause of a bunch of billionaires and four-star generals jockeying to get in the picture with him.

All this, naturally, creates a bad impression among the remaining 80 percent of Americans, who are abjectly poor and who voted overwhelmingly for President Doe. They take to the streets as well. When the coup begins to unravel, the networks enact a total, self-imposed news blackout. As poor Americans march in turn to the White House demanding, and finally getting, the imprisoned Doe's return, the networks broadcast reruns of "Pretty Woman" and cartoons, or show over and over footage of Doe's ouster and advise people to stay home.

Hard to believe? Not in Venezuela, where something along these lines just happened. And, in a small, but perverse way, not even in the U.S., where the networks turned off the information faucet during the Bush inauguration to enforce our rulers' consensus that it was time for the country to stop bickering about judicial coups and to move on.

Evidence that Venezuela's media establishment was up to its collective ears in last week's failed coup within a coup to oust the democratically elected President Hugo Chávez and install a right-wing dictatorship has been trickling out of the country for the past few days, thanks to honest reporting from the ground by journalists such as David Adams and Phil Gunson, in The St. Petersburg Times.

Conspirators are said to have met many times during the past year at the home of Miguel Henrique Otero, publisher of El Nacional, one of Venezuela's two main dailies, and other newspapers. Among them was Alberto Ravell, CEO of Globovisión, a CNN affiliate which is the country's main all-news TV station, Marcel Granier, of RCTV, another leading station, and Gustavo Cisneros, Venezuela's wealthiest man and a friend and fishing partner of former President Bush. The Cisneros Group owns Venevisión, one of the country's main networks, and is part owner of the local Direct TV franchise, Caracol Television, and the U.S. Spanish-language network Univisión.

Venezuela's media establishment, closely aligned with a local oligarchy that has the receptive ear of the Bush administration, almost unanimously abhors Chávez' populist policies, big-mouth authoritarian style, friendship with media buster, Fidel Castro, and intolerance of criticism. Chávez hates them back.

Led by Cisneros, the media group, which also included Andrews Mata, owner of El Universal, Venezuela's other major daily, met with self-proclaimed interim President and big business mouthpiece Pedro Carmona on Saturday April 14, as demonstrators were pouring out on the streets of Caracas demanding Chávez' return. Flanked by one of the generals who had installed him in the presidential palace only a day earlier, Carmona asked the media bosses for help.

They obliged: shortly thereafter, the news blackout, which had started the night before, became total. Neither El Universal nor El Nacional published their Sunday editions. Globovisión's Ravell reportedly even called CNN's Atlanta headquarters to ask, in vain, that the U.S. network join the news blackout.

Venezuelans with access to cable and satellite — mostly the rabidly anti-Chávez middle and upper classes, the 20 percent not living in abject poverty — were thus able to find out that the coup was failing without leaving their homes. The poor had to go out on the streets to find out, which made them angrier — some attacked TV stations and newspapers — and probably accelerated Chávez' restoration, which happened early last Sunday.

The first Latin America media coup collapsed about 48 hours after it began, doomed by popular rage and, for the first time, the almost universal condemnation of the region's governments, who, in another first, forced a prematurely gleeful U.S. to tone down and back off on Chávez, at least for now.

Related links:

For Coup and counter-coup, in The Economist.

For Media accused in failed coup by David Adams and Phil Gunson, in the St. Petersburg Times.

For ex-Monty Python, Terry Jones, take on Bush's "singular view of democracy."

For The Cisneros Group, "one of the largest privately held broadcast, media, technology and telecommunications organizations in the world."

For El Nacional and El Universal, Venezuela's major dailies (Spanish only)

For Complete Coverage Americas

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