In 1998, when Hugo Chávez was first elected president of Venezuela, the word ‘blog’ hadn’t even been invented. For Venezuelans, that was just as well: we had no great need for bloggers to explain our reality back then. The things our country was famous for explained themselves: great baseball players and regular winners of the Miss Universe pageant. And oil. Lots of oil.
There would’ve been no demand-side for a pre-Chávez era Caracas Chronicles. The world was not that interested in a comparatively stable Caribbean country. Foreign journalists, writers, academics, and filmmakers in search of stories with global appeal would do better covering countries torn by bloody civil wars or plagued by repressive military juntas, drug cartels, hyperinflation or widespread hunger.
Venezuela had none of those.
But with the rise of Chávez, a charismatic leader bent on changing his country, Latin America and – why not? – the world, interest in Venezuela exploded. His vast popular support and his absolute control of the nation’s massive oil revenues gave him both the political power and the financial leverage to do whatever he wanted. And he did. In the process he became the best known Venezuelan since Simón Bolívar. Suddenly, Venezuela became interesting.
Though there were notable exceptions, a startling number of foreign journalists, documentary makers and writers who had long eschewed the country became instant experts and set out to spread to the rest of the world their recently acquired, often superficial, and sometimes completely wrong understanding of what was going on in Venezuela. Suddenly, the world badly needed a day-by-day road map to the inexplicable goings-on in Caracas. And that’s what Caracas Chronicles became: the Rosetta Stone that made sense of Venezuela to a worldwide audience. The job started out being hard and only got harder over time.
Little by little, the Chávez government became the defining player in deciding what information would become accessible to Venezuelans – and if possible – to the rest of the world. It built a massive, well-oiled, richly funded propaganda machine while simultaneously clamping down on independent media and journalists. It became increasingly difficult to find out what the government was up to, or what was going on in the country, what were the consequences of its policies at home or of its adventures abroad.
By the time Chávez fell ill, it was already a challenge to decipher what exactly was happening in Venezuela. Making sense of the highly polarized, often distorted reporting, cutting through to the government’s propaganda and discovering the kernels of truth hidden in unconfirmed reports spread through social media by both government and opposition supporters became almost impossible. Deliberate manipulation of the news, censorship, ignorance, repression, self-censorship and superficiality created a witches’ brew where the truth often drowned.
As the last embers of what was once a raucous media scene have been snuffed out in the Maduro era, the need for a trusted guide into Venezuelan reality has only grown. Which is why I was so excited when Quico told me he was going to relaunch Caracas Chronicles. It completes an arc that long seemed inevitable to me.
What he started as a weekend hobby back in 2002 – in the halcyon days before Facebook, before YouTube, before Twitter, when you still had to write (weblog) in parenthesis after the word “blog” so readers knew what you were talking about – is morphing into a media company in its own right.
Stepping into the void left open by the disappearance of critical voices from Venezuela’s public sphere, the new Caracas Chronicles is taking its place among the exciting new crop of digital media startups that are perhaps the only hopeful sign of the Maduro era.
Venezuela has become less comprehensible to foreigners than it had ever been before, we need a smart, fun to read, and reliable window into our baffling country. And we need it in English so the rest of the world can join Venezuelans at home and abroad in this perplexing, often jaw-dropping, at times infuriating, and always fascinating journey of discovery.