The RCTV debacle ten years on: Letting every protest count

Ten years on, RCTV’s old stars came together for an outdoor reunion-cum-protest, before it was cut short by the never-ending conflict. A timely reminder that not every protest has to be a march.

The 2007 shutdown of Radio Caracas Televisión, “RCTV” for short, was the canary-in-the-coal-mine for Venezuela’s freedom. A variety TV broadcaster with a mix of soap-operas, sports and critical journalism; it was the first major media victim of Hugo Chávez’s determination to control the airwaves. The shutdown threw its 3,000 employees out of jobs, and dealt a massive blow to freedom of information in Venezuela.

We need creativity. And  RCTV showed how it could be done.  

That was ten years ago last week. To commemorate this event, Radio Caracas Televisión came back to life for an evening. If not quite on the airwaves, then live, in Las Mercedes’ Plaza Alfredo Sadel. The event might just have become the kind of creative, outside the box protest Venezuela is badly in need of. Because, when you think about it, in Caracas we’re always marching toward some government office or other — and we keep getting injured and killed. And yes, we need to keep marching, but we need to explore other ways to protest as well.  

We need creativity. And  RCTV showed how it could be done.  

In a normal march, the National Guard or the National Police invariably confronts us. A “you shall not pass” backed up by brutal repression. Everyone gets angry, but most people are too scared to fight, so they leave. Some remain though, and armed with slingshots and Molotov cocktails, they skirmish with the security forces. They hardly ever win, but even when they do, it never matters. Every little bit of ground they gain feels like a great victory, but it only draws a line in the sand that is washed away hours later, when everyone goes home.

The only way for violent protests to take out the government by themselves is to somehow reach and hold a dangerous position for the government, someplace like El Silencio or Miraflores, but that won’t happen. The front lines don’t have enough people to brute force their way in, nor a strategy to reach and hold those positions.

Another fifty injured, another twenty detained, more deaths. Those numbers have become meaningless, mere statistics added to the day’s saldo.

Initially, what they did was useful for the movement against Maduro, in a Machiavellian kind of way. Their actions incite repression, which causes injuries, detentions, and deaths. Those mounting numbers, together with the humbling images of hundreds of thousands of people marching through the city, had an impact. They turned Luisa Ortega Diaz into a respected chief of prosecutions; they got Yibram Saab to raise his voice against his father – the “Defensor del Pueblo” Tarek William Saab – and they got two judges of the Supreme Tribunal to speak out against the constituyente.

But diminishing returns have caught up with us. Another fifty injured, another twenty detained, more deaths. Those numbers have become meaningless, mere statistics added to the day’s saldo. People say that these fights push the guards towards rebelling, but the government’s only become more ruthless with time.

We don’t encourage defections by giving them reasons to hate us.

Add to that the fact that every Molotov explosion and every injured policeman or guard becomes ammunition for government propaganda, and you’ll realize that violence, which was never the right thing to do isn’t tactically savvy, either.

The things we’ve been doing, then, aren’t enough. It’s time for creative protests aimed at maximum psychological impact, time for the non-violence that we always profess, but never practice.

Which brings us back to RCTV’s brief revival at the Plaza Alfredo Sadel.

The event was intended to be fun. Yes, people were interviewed, but satirically, in a “remember how we used to interview politicians without feeding them the questions beforehand?” kind of way, and just like on the old RCTV, most of the programming wasn’t about politics. There was singing, there was joking, people cried because they came to realize that, my God, I’m back on stage, and I may get my stage back soon after all these years!

The show was bound to be controversial, it was an island of joy in the middle of Armageddon, but the subtext was clear: “we’re going to bring RCTV back on air, bitch.” This was no mere social gathering, it was a protest. Sure, not the kind we’re used to, but perhaps the kind that would get Winston Vallenilla types to turn around and fight for freedom of speech.

It was emotional for me, and I never even watched RCTV. My mom’s friends sang, bursting with nostalgia; one of them cried when she saw Juan Corazón’s performance.

At some point, RCTV handed the mic over to an encapuchado, who started rapping about the bleak reality of the ongoing protests. He was interrupted by a girl draped in a Venezuelan flag, who got on stage and started shouting “how the fuck are you singing while our people are fighting for you and getting injured a few steps from here? How are any of these people even here?”

I saw her face from far away, yet I could tell she was speaking from the bottom of her heart. She was right to be indignant for sure: what the fuck were we doing enjoying this farce while people were getting hurt just blocks away? On the other hand, who the fuck told them to go pick a fight so close to a large, peaceful event?

Their actions disrupted what was might have been a more effective protest.

Let me be clear, they weren’t protecting us, the government wasn’t advancing on our position. They wanted to march, so they left and marched. They stopped traffic on the highway and pushed into Bello Monte and Chacaíto. Predictably, they got repressed. Most people criticize MUD’s alleged marchar hasta el piquete strategy, but they literally did just that, without even having a strategic objective in mind.

Their actions disrupted what was might have been a more effective protest.

The brilliant Coquito was hosting at RCTV’s stage, and he argued with the girl “We all have our own ways of fighting this fight, art is the only way I know, let me do what I do best. For all of us”. The rapper also intervened “Hey, I’m always up there with you, but right now, I’m here to tell them how things are for us”. After tensions calmed down, and the rapper finished singing, Coquito came up to announce that, due to the many injured nearby, the show wouldn’t go on.

With the sun still out, contrary to the plan, we jumped straight to the Big Reveal. The show was to end as RCTV ended ten years ago. Their anthem would play, followed by Venezuela’s, followed by silence. This chilling conclusion to an afternoon of delightful nostalgia would put everything into context.

We had this. They took it away from us. Don’t you want it back? It was a narrative capable of empowering a movement.

That was the plan, at least. Instead, we got new repression pics to share on Twitter and more injured to treat with the few supplies we have left. The whole “someone from the resistance is shouting on stage” bit scared most of the crowd into leaving early. The backstage hadn’t made preparations, so Venezuela’s anthem didn’t play. We sang it limply as we left instead.