I’ll never forget it. It was a normal weekday in early 2003 when the familiar music comes on the TV…esta es una transmisión conjunta de la red de radio y…Cadena.
The image then takes us to a dark tunnel while the announcer explains that President Chavez has travelled to the Valles del Tuy to personally oversee the completion of the final tunnel in the new railway being built out there. Sigh, propaganda ploy.
But in the Chavez era, nothing is so simple or predictable. President Chavez isn’t there for some wussy ribbon cutting. Instead, he jumps right into the giant earth digger doing the work, and after exchanging some words with the operator, he starts working the machine, drilling through the mountain personally. Charming.
Now, I assumed they’d worked out the photo op so Chavez would work the machine for the last minute or two. Or five. Well, either they worked it out wrong or Chavez is a damn lousy tunnel maker: it took at least forty minutes for him to drill through to the other side. For forty minutes, on every single TV channel and every radio station, all you could see was Chavez on top of a big machine drilling a hole.
The announcer tried to keep some semblance of a discourse on the air throughout this process, “Here, from Valles del Tuy, the President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela participates actively in the construction of the new republic. The final tunnel in the highway completes a long term project to…zzzz…” but after 25 minutes, even he had run entirely out of banalities.
So for the next half hour or so, if you turned on a television in Venezuela – any channel – what you would see was the president of the republic operating heavy machinery over the loudest noise you can imagine. I presume no one in Channel 8 quite dared to cut away from a cadena without presidential approval. They just kept that camera on him.
Now, if the TV images were pathetic, the situation on the radio verged on the alarming. Listeners who tuned in at just that time – especially car drivers – heard an inexplicable, loud whining noise of machinery on every radio station that just went on and on…with no explanation, they were left to run with their imaginations.
Some people just panicked. I got a weak kneed call from a colleague, “chamo, all the radio stations are down, this is really weird…is there a coup underway?!”