On the Political Implications of the Imperfect Subjunctive

Chavismo’s long-rumored, long-feared push to crack down on the Internet is upon us, in the form of a draconian set of amendments to the Orwellianly named Law on Social Responsibility in Radio and Television to extend its reach into the online world and dramatically expand the categories of banned speech.

The bill now before the lame duck National Assembly empowers – nay, mandates – the state to take action against a very broad, very nebulously defined set of speech crimes. For instance, the law now on the books already bans War Propaganda. But the bill the Council of Ministers just approved goes much further, banning messages that “could be considered war propaganda.”

No fewer than ten categories of speech would be banned under article 14, most using the same, extravagantly vague formulation. The bill bans messages that “could be considered hate speech”, and those that “could be considered to promote disregard for the law”, and those that “could be considered as inducing magnicide” and those that “could be considered to disrespect public offices or the people who hold them”.

The key here is the use of “pudieran”: the imperfect subjunctive form of the verb “poder” (to be able to). As this Spanish grammar puts it,

The subjunctive mood is subjective; it expresses emotional, potential, and hypothetical attitudes about what is being expressed – things like will/wanting, emotion, doubt, possibility, necessity, judgment. In contrast, the “normal” verb mood is called the indicative and is used for factual or definite statements about reality.

No exact translation is possible, but I think the closest approximation to “mensajes que pudieran…” is something like “messages that could conceivably…” or “messages that could be considered to…”

So the new law doesn’t just ban dissing that son of a whore Chávez; it bans messages that could conceivably be interpreted as casting doubt upon the chastity of Ms. Elena Frías.

The obvious question is: “by whom?” Who gets to decide what language could conceivably cross one of the red-lines in the bill?

The answer, of course, is “a panel of bureaucrats appointed by Chávez”.

Article 15 of the bill orders all Internet Service Providers to create mechanisms to allow them to restrict access to any site containing offending speech immediately upon request from the aforementioned bureaucrats.

Hello Great Firewall of Venezuela!

That such sweepingly defined rules are – short of simply banning the internet – technically impossible to enforce is beside the point. The idea here is to intimidate, to give the government the legal tools it needs to justify moving against almost anybody who is even tangentially active in politics at almost any time. In likelihood, it will be enforced selectively, sporadically, to make a point here and there and, of course, pour encourager les autres.