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Instead of tanks and guns, the new opposition has been wielding subliminal advertising techniques and media manipulation. Related Gully Coverage

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Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez (R) waves next to Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel in Caracas, Dec. 17, 2002. Daniel Aguilar

Letter from Venezuela

Venezuela's Media Mindshock

by Carlos Rensseler

MARACAIBO, DEC. 20, 2002. Last Saturday afternoon, I tuned in to Globovisión to check out the latest mass demonstration against President Hugo Chávez in Caracas. In between the usual fawning coverage of the mostly middle and upper class throngs demanding that Chávez immediately resign, agitprop spots were played over and over again.

"Chávez failed in ...," the ad started slowly, punctuating each failure with the loud sound of a hammer crashing against metal and a changing negative image. Then it picked up speed, "Chávez failed in... Chávez failed in... Chávez failed in... Chávez failed in...," louder, faster, increasingly hysterical, rapid-fire sound bytes, flickering images. Next popped up a spot pleading for peace with an image of the Virgin Mary. I am not an impressionable person, but when the sensory barrage was over, my head was spinning and I sat numbed for a few seconds in front of the TV screen.

I switched channels. Other networks had more of the same, propaganda ads for Coordinadora Democrática, the anti-Chávez coalition, interlaced with children's programs.

Brute Mental Force
Venezuela has always been a country of political brute force tactics. The anti-Chávez reaction, however, has a novel and perhaps more powerful tool: massive mindshock. Instead of tanks and guns, the new opposition has for months wielded a toxic combination of subliminal advertising techniques and media manipulation.

Disinformation, flashing negative imagery, fear and stress induction techniques, quasi-hypnotic suggestion, excessive repetition, and falsification and forgery are just but a few of the mindshock techniques deliberately being used, not just in overtly political spots but also in regular programming. Mass negative e-mailings are now being added to the mix. The mass, anti-government demonstrations are, first and foremost, photo ops to feed the anti-Chávez propaganda machine.

Since last November, former national TV network rivals, Venevisión and Globovisión, have been broadcasting in curious lockstep. The same goes for the three smaller networks, which are, in descending order of bias, RCTV, Televén and CMT. They even cover events from the same angles, often showing the same scenes. There is no attempt whatsoever at independent coverage, let alone honest journalistic investigation. The worst is Venevisión, owned by multimillionaire Gustavo Cisneros, who also controls Univisión, the biggest Spanish-language network in the United States.

Events, interviews, opinions: only the opposition's voices and faces are shown. Pro-government views, when they sneak in by chance, are met with sarcasm, excessive interruption, or quick change to commercials. This even happens when an on camera conversation begins to drift in a direction that may not be altogether damning of the government or sufficiently approving of the opposition. After the commercial break, the independent-minded person is either not there any more, or the topic has been changed.

By comparison, the smaller, financially-strapped Venezolana de Televisión (VDT), which is government-owned, usually has had more relaxed programming, with no massive negative bombardment. VDT was unable, or unwilling, to show Saturday's opposition march in Caracas. Past attempts by the station staff to cover opposition marches have been met with hostility and, in some cases, violence. VDT staff reportedly is also banned from the opposition's numerous press conferences. The station was briefly shut down by the leaders of last April's failed coup, as were Radio Nacional de Venezuela and the news agency Venpres, also publicly-owned.

Mass Aversion Therapy
In general, the difference between mindshock ads and regular TV programming is increasingly blurred in Venezuela. Both share some of the same characteristics: Numbing repetition. Relentless slandering and demonizing of Chávez' supporters. Exaggeration, negative spinning and saturation coverage of any minor fact or event that can remotely make the Chávez government look bad. Loud, rapid-fire, invariably negative interviews. Excessive use of panic-inducing words ("Castro-Communism" is a favorite of Venevisión, along with "mobs," routinely used to describe Chávez supporters). Deliberate use of loaded terms like "crimes against humanity" or "genocide" in the wrong contexts, to describe current events in Venezuela. Exploitation of children in interviews to stir up anti-Chávez sentiment.

Venezuelans are being subject to a massive Chávez-aversion therapy program, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, month after month, ad nauseam. People wake up and go to sleep with it.

Last night I made the mistake of not checking if my six-year old was watching TV. He woke up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, hyperventilating, unable to breath. He pleaded to be allowed to sleep with his mother and me. He was afraid the "Chavistas" would come in the middle of the night and kill him.

The mindshock campaign has drastically increased the Venezuelan opposition's effectiveness. However, it may be having an unintended effect: no serious policy makers have so far emerged from the opposition's ranks to offer a rational alternative to Chávez. The year-long hate and anxiety-inducing exercise in media manipulation is not conducive to rational, let alone realistic, thought.

Carlos Rensseler is the pseudonym of a Maracaibo businessman whose family immigrated to Venezuela when he was a child. He prefers not to use his real name to protect himself and his family.

Related links:

For Venezuela's timeline from the BBC.

For Chaos and Constitution, Barry C. Lynn's look at why Venezuela's poor passionately support Chavez, from Mother Jones.

For Venezuela's press power in Le Monde Diplomatique, Maurice Lemoine's account of "how hate media incited the coup against the president."

For ZNet's Venezuela Watch, with a wealth of probing stories.

For Complete Coverage Americas

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