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.

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  1. No se chamo. What if this is just a big red herring which will cause an outrage, not be approved, and serve as an excuse for five different horrible things Chavez will be doing while this discussion is going on?

    It’s happened before.

    • This will be approved swiftly, but won’t be the shut down of the internet as we know it. The law is so ambigous that its real purpose is put pressure to some specific sites (Noticiero Digital: Public Enemy #1), just like the original purpose of the RESORTE law was to put pressure on Globo and RCTV at the time. Fear is the real monster here. They want you to be scared of tweeting.

      The broad ambiguity of the law is designed to create self-censorship, more than censorship itself. Let’s be real, these guys don’t have the manpower or the resources to pull up what this reform say. The Cubans will put some people but the battle is lost before the start.

      China, Cuba and Iran had it easy. When the Internet appeared, they could establish a system to try control the flow. But even the Chinese are not infalible. Messages always come out. Technology goes too fast and they can’t always catch up.

      If Chavez wanted it to do this right, he should have started the first day in office to create the infraestructure to somehow pull this off. It’s now easy nor cheap. And I remind you that this government is not the symbol of efficency.

      I found this law appaling. I hate what the country is becoming. But as many laws here, se acatan pero no se cumplen. Still, people should protest this.

      Sadly is December and people are busy. And the MUD parties will complain, but in the end they won’t do crap about it.

      Life goes on. And most of the Internet will be fine. But we can’t let fear beat us in th end.

    • This is very serious, Juan. People like us won’t have a problem circumventing stuff on the Internet but most Venezuelans by far will. It just takes a minute to learn tricks to circumvent things, but most people anywhere just don’t bother.

  2. I do not know how Chavez will be able to open his mouth without breaking the new law 20 times per minute

    He only talks about: hate, magnicidio, war, how to disregard the law, disrespectfully of public officers, etc.

    I bet he goes behind bars pretty soon for voicing his opinions….;)

    • ” I do not know how Chavez will be able to open his mouth without breaking the new law 20 times per minute
      He only talks about: hate, magnicidio, war, how to disregard the law, disrespectfully of public officers, etc.”

      It would be kinda cool if TV/radio stations just shut off their transmissions while on a cadena if Chavez stars talking about that, and their defense would be “not to break RESORTE law, because of the messages being transmitted by this TV/radio station are promoting (class) war, magnicide, and disregarding public officers (mayors and gobernors that are not PSUV)”

      Interesting… a censorship law so ill designed that it wouldnt let the messages of Fearless Leader come thru!

    • Simply not broadcasting the cadena is not an option, so maybe they can put him on a 10-second delay with selective bleeping, as SNL pioneered with Richard Pryor way back when.

  3. Crap in the law books is far more harmful than mere, clear worded opression. This you can fight without gloves.

    By crap I mean nebulous wording, platitudes, institution of phantom or fantastic entities and concepts (like all “positive” rights, by the way), too broadly (badly) defined competences and powers of government agencies, broad powers for executive and enforcement agencies to define and enact the laws.

    Crap not only fools people, but allows malicious officials a carte blanche for just about anything, for instituting a tyranny of “good intentions”.

    • And I certainly hope this will be a lesson for the opposition, to never allow even a tiny bit of wishful thinking to make it to the letter of law in the future.

      Wishful thinking and a picture of your ideal world is nice enough for preambles, declarations and for exposition of motives. More often than not it is disconnected from the actual consequences of the laws following.

      Dream of building something great, yes. Architecture and engineering according to whim and fancy, no!. Designing a death-trap and thinking it a monument, definitely no!

  4. Alternative scenario (has happened before): Chávez lets the law advance and gets people like Ortega Díaz to spew fascist threats before he puts his cape on, flies in and tells everyone that the revolution is not stalinist and, heck guys, what where you thinking?!? We love people, remember, we’re the revolution bonita.
    So el gordito becomes an adamant *defendant* of free speech.
    Darn, I should sooo much be an aid to the government…
    P.s.: On a related topic, Dan Pratt of Panfleto worked with us on “La Revista” and developed a comprehensive guide to using TOR and other softwares to circumvent government restrictions.
    His article, in Spanish, here:
    Cómo evadir el bloqueo y la censura en Internet: – http://li.co.ve/bKD
    Sigue leyendo en panfletonegro: http://www.panfletonegro.com/volante/2010/09/12/como-evadir-la-censura-y-el-bloqueo-de-internet-en-latinoamerica/#ixzz17ikOEFof

  5. Dear FT (Quico and Katy have run off together):

    Blanket measures like this MIGHT enable an enterprising oppo to publicly charge Chávez with breaking it himself whenever he publicly humiliates one of his own officials. It might just make a splash if oppos are arrested for abusing Chávez for abusing his own public officials. Sure, no goverment panel will co-operate, but PUBLIC absurdity can make cumulative inroads among his own supporters.



    • Hugo Chavez, I am sorry to say, has all the bases covered.

      -The courts are stuffed with his suckups.

      -He is a narcissist, impervious to shame or reason. He only cares for sucking up (to him)

  6. Ah, Mea Culpa!

    My apologies for NOT reading similar previous comments before I shot off my mouth (with my fingers) .
    I’m glad to see it’s so obvious.




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