What it's really about

Katy says: As we restlessly digest our confusion, sadness and outrage over the RCTV shutdown, it’s easy to forget the big picture – why did Chávez make this move, and why now?

To figure it out, ask yourself this: what does Chávez want more than anything? And, what is the biggest hurdle to achieving it?

What Chávez wants is absolute power, something he’s close to but doesn’t have yet, at least not by his standards. To get it, Chavez needs indefinite re-election, the assurance that he will never be considered a lame-duck President and that nobody in his circle will rise to prominence as his term nears its limit. And to get that, he’ll have to reform the Constitution.

From this point of view, the nature and timing of the RCTV decision make perfect sense.

Chavez wants to reform the Constitution for one reason only: so he can govern until he dies. But in order to do that he has to change the Hard Constitution, and if he wants to do that and keep a semblance of democracy, he needs that reform approved in a referendum.

Since a specific proposal has not been unveiled, it’s too soon to poll on whether or not people would vote favorably for a hypothetical reform to allow this. Nevertheless, recent opinion polls show large majorities of Venezuelans do not favor the idea of indefinite re-election. There is a real risk that Chavez could lose a referendum on it, and this is a risk he is not willing to take.

That’s the real reason behind the RCTV shutdown – not the coup, not Miguel Angel Rodriguez, not the soap operas, not Granier. Chavez cannot risk having a national, opposition-minded media outlet heading the campaign against indefinite re-election and giving air time to those who oppose it.

With RCTV out of the way and the Constituional Reform shrouded in secrecy, voters in Venezuela will have to make up their minds on the basis of official information, print media and Globovisión (which have little penetration beyond the middle class) and the reporting on Venezuela’s remaining TV channels, which can be relied on to mobilize in favor of the proposal.

Already, the European Union’s election monitoring mision for last year’s election noted the way state assets were openly mobilized in favor of Chávez’s re-election and the obscene one-sidedness of campaign coverage on state TV. Well, guess what: in the run-up to the constitutional reform referendum, all mass-market TV will be state TV, or state-dominated TV. Faced with the flood of petrodollars the government lets lose in the run-up to any election, with the abuse of state broadcasting, with the illegal use of state money to fund official campaigns, our last remaining counterweight was a combative private media: now it’s gone.

As I write this, I realize it all sounds too simplistic. But I also realize that Venevisión – an erstwhile opposition TV station that has now become the government’s broadcaster of choice – had its license renewed for five years only, and that the next presidential election is scheduled to take place five and a half years from now. On those two facts alone, the government’s war on private media starts to make more sense.