Deadline: Populism and the Press in Venezuela
Deadline: Populism and the Press in Venezuela

Deadline: Populism and the Press in Venezuela

by Robert Samet

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Since 2006, Venezuela has had the highest homicide rate in South America and one of the highest levels of gun violence in the world. Former president Hugo Chávez, who died in 2013, downplayed the extent of violent crime and instead emphasized rehabilitation. His successor, President Nicolás Maduro, took the opposite approach, declaring an all-out war on crime (mano dura). What accounts for this drastic shift toward more punitive measures?
In Deadline, anthropologist Robert Samet answers this question by focusing on the relationship between populism, the press, and what he calls “the will to security.” Drawing on nearly a decade of ethnographic research alongside journalists on the Caracas crime beat, he shows how the media shaped the politics of security from the ground up. Paradoxically, Venezuela’s punitive turn was not the product of dictatorship, but rather an outgrowth of practices and institutions normally associated with democracy. Samet reckons with this apparent contradiction by exploring the circulation of extralegal denuncias (accusations) by crime journalists, editors, sources, and audiences. Denuncias are a form of public shaming or exposé that channels popular anger against the powers that be. By showing how denuncias mobilize dissent, Deadline weaves a much larger tale about the relationship between the press, popular outrage, and the politics of security in the twenty-first century.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226633565
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 07/08/2019
Series: Chicago Studies in Practices of Meaning Series
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Robert Samet is assistant professor of anthropology at Union College in New York.

Read an Excerpt


Politics in the Chávez Era

La Torre de David, or the Tower of David, is a half-finished skyscraper in downtown Caracas that became a metaphor for the Chávez era. Construction on the forty-five-story building began in 1989 as part of an ambitious project to create a financial complex in the heart of the city. Just a few years later it was abandoned amid economic turmoil and the death of its main backer, David Brillembourg. The structure sat vacant for years. In 2007 squatters took over with the tacit approval of the Chávez administration. The residents were eventually relocated, but not before they had built a city within the city. At its apex, there were more than 4,400 people and 1,100 families living in the complex. The central tower was settled up to the twenty-eighth floor. In addition to personal habitations, the tower also contained a church, a hair salon, a basketball court, and several bodegas.

I first learned about the Tower of David from a pair of journalists who described it as a criminal enclave. They told stories of armed guards, kidnapping rings, and dismembered bodies thrown from the rooftop. This was the Tower of David that appeared in an episode of the television series Homeland and served as the central figure in Jon Lee Anderson's 2013 retrospective on the Chávez era. For Anderson, Caracas was "a failed city," and the Tower of David was "the ultimate symbol of that failure." But like everything else in Venezuela, there was a second, more hopeful version of the story; it envisioned the Tower of David as the vanguard of a new urbanism, a testament to the ingenuity and resilience of the urban poor. This was the Tower of David studied by Urban-Think Tank, which made it the subject of a book, a documentary film, and an award-winning exhibition at the 2012 Venice Biennale for Architecture. Rather than a criminal underworld, they discovered a tightly organized community that "turned a ruin into a home."

The Tower of David was typical of Caracas in the Chávez era. There were two versions of Venezuela's capital city, which was alternately represented as a radical utopia and a failed metropolis. Reconciling these competing visions was the greatest challenge of doing research in Caracas. My fieldwork plumbed the depths of what one urbanist called "Caracas the horrible." There was, however, another version of the city that served as an inspiration for progressive politics worldwide. To deny the promise of the Bolivarian Revolution would be as misguided as denying the numerous problems besetting it. This chapter provides an overview of the politics of the Chávez era as it pertained to journalism and security. It is a brief primer to the complicated landscape that crime reporters navigated on a daily basis.

The Journalistic Field

Much of the international reporting about Venezuela in the Chávez era focused on the issue of press freedom or the lack thereof. Take, for example, the nongovernment organization Freedom House, whose annual study of press freedom was widely cited as evidence that press freedom in Venezuela was under assault. Starting in 2003, Freedom House categorized Venezuela as "not free," the same designation given to Iran, North Korea, and Russia. The irony of this designation was that most Venezuelans, regardless of their political allegiance, disagreed with this assessment. Moreover, "press freedom" was widely recognized as an expression of partisan struggle. To claim that press freedom was under assault was to assume an explicitly antigovernment stance. Denying that there was any problem meant assuming a progovernment stance. Given this polarizing rhetoric, I found that it was best to eschew debates about the relative freedom or unfreedom of the press and to focus instead on the journalistic field and the conditions of news production in Venezuela.

Few cities in the world rivaled Caracas for the volume and diversity of its journalistic output during the Chávez era. Print journalism was ubiquitous. More than a dozen newspapers served the Caracas metropolitan area, and at least four of these papers circulated nationally. Upward of 90 percent of these newspapers were sold at the kiosks that dotted all corners of the city. Unlike in North America and Europe, the newspaper industry in Latin America was booming, and everywhere you turned in Caracas, the evidence was on display. Television and radio news were equally robust. According to Andrés Cañizález and Jairo Lugo-Ocando, in Venezuela there were "more users and subscribers for television and radio per capita than in either Brazil or Mexico," Latin America's two traditional broadcast media powerhouses. Venezuela was also a regional leader in digital communication. By 2011 more than 40 percent of residents had internet access; cell phone penetration hovered around 100 percent; and Venezuelans ranked among the top five users of Twitter in the world.

In contrast to global trends, the ownership of Venezuela's private press was also remarkably decentralized. For a variety of reasons, Venezuela resisted the consolidation of mass media empires so common in the United States and much of Latin America. Even the mighty Gustavo Cisneros — one of Latin America's wealthiest and most influential media moguls — controlled only one major news property in Venezuela. During my fieldwork in Caracas, there were four important private television stations, three radio networks, and four major newspaper empires. All of them were owned and controlled by different groups.

What made Caracas truly extraordinary, however, were the three distinct sectors that made up the journalistic field: the private press, the state press, and the community media movement. The private press was old, well established, and widely viewed as the opposition's most potent tool. It consisted of several dozen privately owned and privately operated media outfits. Some were massive, for-profit corporations with national distribution — for example, the television station Venevisión, the radio circuit Unión Radio, or the newspaper El Universal. These huge entities overlapped with regional newspapers, local radio stations, special interest magazines (e.g., sports, economy), a couple of privately funded news outlets, and a growing number of news websites. The state press was a rapidly expanding media empire under the control of the Chávez government. In 2002 there were just three state-owned, state-operated news outlets. By 2012 the state press had ballooned to include more than a dozen media outfits across the print, broadcast, and digital spectrum. The community media movement consisted of a loose network of grassroots media activists that won legitimacy under the Chávez administration. Across Venezuela there were hundreds of community radio stations — both authorized and unauthorized — perhaps one hundred community newspapers, and nearly forty community television stations. Although most stations received support from the government in the way of equipment, the community media movement predated President Chávez by several decades. Important community media outlets such as Catia TVe were independent outfits that had a complex relationship to the state. Although there were important points of overlap between these sectors of the journalistic field, especially between the state press and the community media, they functioned independently and had their own spheres of influence.

In most contexts it makes sense to talk about the journalistic field as a single, discernable sphere of cultural production. However, the struggle between the Venezuelan government and the opposition divided the journalistic field into two camps that were increasingly autonomous. This rift was evident from the perspective of news content. The private press and the state press followed news agendas that were so radically different it was as if they were reporting from altogether different countries. Many Venezuelans were in the habit of shuttling back and forth between the private press and the state press to try to "triangulate" the truth of any news event. This schism was even more apparent from the perspective of journalists. By the end of my fieldwork, two separate professional tracks had emerged, and it was increasingly difficult to move between the state press and the private press. Although older generations of journalists had long-standing relations with their colleagues on both sides of the metaphorical aisle, most of the younger reporters and photographers were cut off from their fellow professionals. The decision to work in the state press could potentially exclude one from employment in the private sector and vice versa.

Later chapters detail the history behind this split, which was tied to the outsize role that the private press played in Venezuelan politics. While there is nothing unusual about the media playing the part of watchdog, news outlets in Venezuela acted more like political parties. They were not simply mouthpieces for the opposition; they were the opposition. Or at least that was how most Venezuelans viewed the matter. The ascendance of press power was the result of a series of corruption scandals during the 1980s and 1990s, when journalists helped expose wrongdoing at the highest level of government. Mass mediated denuncias led to the impeachment of Venezuela's president, and they helped thoroughly discredit the country's two main political parties, Acción Democrática (AD) and Partido Sociál Cristiano, known as COPEI. A power vacuum ensued. Many of the prominent reporters and news outlets that had crusaded against the old political parties stepped in to fill that vacuum. Journalists went from ostensibly reporting the news to openly shaping it. They also paved the way for a new series of political movements, most notably the Bolivarian Revolution.

Key figures in the private press helped elect President Hugo Chávez, but the relationship between the press and the president soured in little over a year. What transpired between 2000 and 2005 might be the most dramatic example of a media war in recent history. The private press was at the forefront of a failed coup d'état against Chávez (2002), a three-month oil strike (2002–3), and a presidential recall referendum (2004). Calls to oust Chávez dominated the news media. Aside from a pair of newspapers (Últimas Noticias and Panorama), the president and his supporters had few defenders in the private press. That role fell primarily to an anemic state press and an insurgent network of grassroots media producers. As the president and his supporters began to bounce back from political defeat, they channeled resources to news outlets sympathetic to their position.

During President Chávez's second term in office (2006–12), the balance of forces in the journalistic field shifted in favor of the government. The administration's objective was "communicational hegemony," which would pave the way for its progressive sociopolitical agenda. To that end, the state press was transformed into a veritable media empire that included six national television stations, three national radio networks, a press agency, and three Caracas-based newspapers. The project of communicational hegemony also included sustained attempts to convert, co-opt, or censor oppositional elements within the private press. What was undoubtedly the most controversial move during this period was the government's refusal to renew the broadcasting license of Radio Caracas Television (RCTV) in 2007. This move effectively removed Venezuela's oldest and most popular private television station from the airwaves. The case of RCTV illustrated the selective enforcement of broadcast laws in ways that favored the Chávez government. Similar tactics were used against Globovisión and a number of radio stations, including Circuito Nacional Belfort (CNB), or the Belfort National Circuit. These were major developments that shook the journalistic field and provoked international condemnation. However, private press did not disappear, nor did it go silent.

Despite the rapid expansion of the state press, during the period of my fieldwork it was still dwarfed by the private press in terms of audience share. Take the case of television. By the end of 2010, private broadcast television stations commanded just over 61 percent of the national audience; cable and satellite television had approximately 33 percent of the national audience; and state television accounted for a little less than 6 percent of the total national audience.

Perhaps the most important development during the second half of the Chávez era was the renewal of political pacts. Venezuela's media traditionally had been kept in check by a series of informal pacts between political elites and media owners. If many of these pacts disintegrated during the 1980s and 1990s, the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century witnessed their resurgence. The best example would be the pact between media mogul Gustavo Cisneros and the Chávez government. Cisneros's flagship television network, Venevisión, was one of the key actors behind a coup d'état that nearly ousted Chávez (as will be discussed further in chapter 5). When it became clear that the president was back in power, he and the media mogul struck a deal behind closed doors. Although the specifics of the deal were the subject of rumor, the existence of this pact was common knowledge. As a result, Venevisión shifted its editorial line in a direction favorable to the government. A number of other media outlets opted for a similar path. While there was massive and vocal opposition to the Chávez government at the beginning of the decade, the tone of news coverage in the private press was considerably muted by the end of the decade. This was not an outright conversion. The private press remained the focal point of oppositional politics in Venezuela, but most high-profile pundits, editors, and media owners were convinced or coerced to moderate the tone of their coverage.

The Politics of Security

Whereas there were varying opinions concerning press freedom, everyone agreed that crime was out of control. Consensus only made the issue more volatile. It took an unsettling conversation with the man who sold me the morning newspapers to help me realize this. Like most people in Caracas, I bought newspapers from a kiosk near my home, and I frequently talked politics with the kiosquero who sold them. A few months into our relationship, I asked him why Caracas had such high crime rates. His answer surprised me. "Too much democracy," he said, and went on to trace the current crime wave to the fall of the Marcos Pérez Jiménez dictatorship in 1958. Democracy had come at a price, and that price was public order, he contended. The newspaper vendor was a mild, grandfatherly type. A self-identified chavista, he usually sported a red baseball cap and liked to read the progovernment newspaper Diario Vea. And yet he was quite critical of the president on the subject of insecurity. Chávez was soft on crime, he told me. The country needed to return to the heavy-handed policies of old. As I discovered, he was not exceptional in his beliefs. Indeed, many of the president's most committed supporters favored openly repressive security measures.

It was no secret that violent crime was the Chávez administration's Achilles's heel. From 2006 to 2013, Venezuelan voters ranked insecurity as the country's number one problem, ahead of unemployment, political instability, corruption, and the economy. Growing concerns about crime coincided with a measurable increase in the rates of violence, but they also reflected booming oil prices and improved economic conditions for the popular classes. For many observers, violent crime symbolized the failure of the Venezuelan state to capitalize on its good fortune. Nowhere was this failure more evident than in Caracas.

In Caracas, violent crime disproportionately affected the president's political base among the urban poor. It represented the one issue that could potentially drive a wedge between Chávez and his supporters. For opposition leaders, including key figures within the private press, "insecurity" presented an important political opportunity. Strategists and politicians were alert to the possibilities of an anticrime, prosecurity platform. Many of these leaders believed that in the hands of the right candidate, a tough-on-crime approach could unseat Chávez.

No political figure embodied the anticrime, prosecurity platform better than Leopoldo López, the charismatic mayor (2000–2008) of Chacao, the city's smallest and wealthiest municipality. López established his reputation as a law-and-order candidate by transforming Policía Chacao into a model municipal police department. When I met López at a press conference in late 2007, he was positioning himself for the next step in his political career. Ostensibly, the purpose of the press conference was to announce the municipality's favorable end-of-year crime statistics, but it was also an opportunity for him to tout his new "Plan 180: A Proposal for Justice and Security in Venezuela." Plan 180 promised to turn insecurity around 180 degrees in 180 days, by reforming the justice system from the bottom up. The proposal included everything from programs for at-risk populations to suggestions for transforming the police, the courts, and the prison system. With López at the helm, all of Venezuela would be just like Chacao.


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Table of Contents


Introduction / Media and the Logic of Populism

One / Politics in the Chávez Era
Two / Crime Beat
Three / Crime City
Four / Malandro/Sano
Five / The Photographer’s Body
Six / Denouncers
Seven / Radicals and Reformers
Eight / The Subject of Wrongs
Conclusion / The Will to Security

Works Cited

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