With a Gun to its Head, Aporrea Discovers Freedom of Speech

Rage-inducing as Aporrea's late conversion is, Venezuela's public sphere would be badly diminished if chavistas lost the one independent medium they have left.

Did you hear? Apparently, there is a plan in place to shut down Aporrea. We know because it says so right there in Aporrea. The plan, it seems, is to starve the site of funds now that it’s gone all critical, choking it into submission. They speak arepa too, it seems, and so you either gingerly dismount the mule or you hate freedom of speech:

If you are against penning in the media, whether in private hands or in the bureaucratic hands of the State, if you want to support the self-directed and autonomous communication of the people and alternative, independent journalism, as well as critique, and free debate within the ambit of the process of change in Venezuela, give us a hand and some support using your credit card.

Si estás contra los cercos mediáticos, tanto el de medios privados, como el burocrático de Estado, y quieres apoyar la comunicación autónoma del pueblo, el periodismo alternativo independiente, la crítica y el debate libre en el marco del proceso de cambios venezolano, échanos una manito a través de un aporte económico con tu tarjeta de crédito.

It’s hard to suppress a certain level of rage as you read that. Aporrea is, of course, the very last man standing in Martin Niemöller’s poem. They were gloriously silent when the regime came for RCTV, utterly quiescent when Conatel bullied and hounded Globovision, mute as a stone when radio station after radio station was shut down for dissent, coldly impassible when Diosdado started buying newspapers through testaferros…and now they expect us all to rise up and speak for them.

Erm…it doesn’t work that way, guys.

But it’s in the inside pages that the loopiness reaches its peak. There we find Jesús Silva, in one of the more gloriously unselfaware and contradictory pieces I’ve seen in Aporrea so far this year  – and trust me the competition for that distinction is ferocious – superficially defending freedom of speech as such but also, when you poke at it more carefully, really just defending Aporrea’s right to speak on the basis that they are the real revolutionaries.

Keep track of the media and notice the blackout imposed on those who participate regularly on this site, even though so many facts can only be found out through us, and elsewhere chavistas have no way of finding out. It’s a disservice to the revolution done by some “alleged revolutionaries” who abhor the democratic discussion of ideas and keep abusing their power, and often it’s not even the bosses who are to blame, but the yes-men around them, the gophers who work for the bosses, they’re the worse. [Translator’s note: Syntax is even more mangled in the original – I’m sparing you a tsunami of “sics” here to keep it borderline readable.]

Hágase un monitoreo de los medios de comunicación y nótese el veto a quienes hacen vida permanente en esta página, muchas cosas sólo se saben por esta vía y en otros lados los chavistas no tienen posibilidad de enterarse. Flaco servicio hacen a la revolución unos presuntos revolucionarios que aborrecen la discusión democrática de ideas y siguen aportando al uso abusivo del poder, muchas veces ni siquiera ellos son los jefes, sino más bien los jalamecates y “lleva y trae” que trabajan para los jefes, esos son los peores.

Did you catch that?

It’s because Aporrea serves the revolution that “the democratic discussion of ideas” it hosts deserves the right to be published. It’s not about the service rendered to the country, or to the reader, or to the truth, no no. Free speech exists to serve the revolution. Which does rather imply that those brutes who do not render service to the revolution – we’re looking right at you, presuntos revolucionarios – have no right to speak. (And if Jesús Silva had a Conatel Magic Wand in his hand, who really thinks they’d be allowed to?)  

But remember: you have to give Aporrea money, sabes, si estás contra los cercos mediáticos.

It’s staggering how little these people have learned.


Reading all this, I couldn’t help but think back to my political science classes in the mid 90s. At the time, there was a narrative making the academic rounds about the third wave democratization in Latin America, as country after country, particularly in the Southern Cone, shed dictatorship and transitioned to democracy. As the story went, this wasn’t just about the decline and fall of the Eastern Bloc communist regimes, it was also about the way the Left had changed its attitude towards civil and political rights – and in particular towards freedom of speech.

Traditional Marxism, lest we forget, didn’t have any time for such bourgeois conceits. Freedom of speech meant little to people committed to the idea that classes had interests and the clash between those interests was the sole driving force in history. Ideas in general were “epiphenomena” – rhetorical window dressing unable to change the structural facts of the class struggle. The ideas workers had in their heads were either objectively right – that is, Marxist – or they were expressions of “false consciousness”: seeded there by the ruling class through its manipulation of the media, the church, and other organs of social control. The bourgeois fixation with defending the right to spread false-consciousness freely seemed to Marxists obviously perverse.

The perception on the left was that “freedom of speech” was just another of the ideological weapons the ruling class uses to divide and oppress the workers. In the 1970sl, that was the consensus position in the Latin American Marxist left.

But the brutality of the Bureaucratic Authoritarian regimes that came to power in the Southern Cone in the 1970s, beginning with the 1973 coup in Chile, set into motion a long, arduous rethink of the left’s hidebound Marxist orthodoxy. Being on the receiving end of the full repressive force of some absolutely ghastly regimes jolted them into a rethink.

Seeing your friends and comrades hunted down, tortured and killed in large numbers for saying things the powerful did not want said has a way of causing you to re-evaluate the importance of freedom of speech. 

Chile was again in the vanguard. In the 1988 plebiscite campaign, progressive forces began to appropriate the language of civil and political rights, positioning themselves for the first time as against all dictatorships, not in favor of the dictatorship of the proletariat. As important sectors of the left began to own the language of civil and political rights for the first time, the stakes for more conservative forces were ratcheted down. Gradually, a space for democratic transition opened as the right began to tentatively explore the possibilities that the left could enter the political sphere without threatening an outright reversion to Castrocommunism.

But, of course, none of this happened in Venezuela. However much chavismo tries to spin the Puntofijo era’s DISIP into a kind of Gestapo, the reality is that we had a consensual political system with wide leeway for ideological difference and plenty of room for contestation and debate. A whole stratum of the state – the public universities – was handed over to the left to use as a place for it to talk about itself with itself on its own terms. That Venezuelan far leftists allow themselves to believe they were as strongly prosecuted as leftists in, say, Argentina, speaks to their loss of any sense of proportion or reality under the onslaught of Chávez era propaganda.

Venezuela didn’t go through what the Southern Cone went through. We had oil, so we could just skip this whole messy business about major insurgencies leading to reactionary dictatorships leading to brutal repression leading to a reappraisal of the rights agenda by the left. There was a whole episode of society-wide learning (and, more specifically, of learning-within-the-left) that just never took place in Venezuela. And still hasn’t taken place, as you can see plainly over on Aporrea.org

Venezuela has always been weirdly out of sync with much of Latin America on these issues, and looks likely to remain so. In a way, we’re undergoing the mirror-image of the learning process the Southern Cone left underwent in the 1970s and 80s. In Venezuela, it’s the center-right of the political spectrum that’s found itself facing a ruthless, brutal regime aggressively hostile towards its rights.

We’re the ones who’ve been violently shaken out of our complacency on the absolutely vital necessity of a robust defense of civil and political rights. It’s our generation of anti-communists that will never, ever be able to watch others being silenced for petty ideological gain without rising in protest.

Which is why, however much it sticks in the throat to say so, I’m forced to conclude that Venezuela’s public sphere would be badly diminished if Aporrea was taken offline. Maddeningly obtuse as its writers may be, it is true that it’s remained the one place you can reliably turn to for pro-government-but-not-government-controlled discourse.

We’ve seen too much shit these last few years to wish Aporrea shut down. Nobody deserves to be censored on ideological grounds. If we haven’t learned that, we haven’t learned anything.

But let’s not volvernos locos here, either: if you’re thinking of giving money to a Venezuelan politics website, you have much better options.