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Venezuela: Double talk on Caracas talk shows, again.

By Daniel Duquenal

Thursday 22, April 2004 - What is the government up to? In what is now an only too predictable pattern, some chavista officials are hitting the morning talk shows, after weeks of estrangement. Not that they are not invited, talk shows host complain regularly on how difficult it is to get as a guest a chavista officeholder. Simply, the record of the Chavez administration is so difficult to defend that the best way to defend it is to ignore the media. Except of course the state TV, VTV, which has an uncanny ability to get all sorts of exclusive interviews by catching so and so at the right moment, in the right place.

But on occasion the regime is confronted with important tests where it is obliged to present a more democratic face, a clear disposition to dialogue. In those moments, usually close to some electoral process, or right after a devaluation, we can observe the return of chavismo to the much hated private media. This rule is repeating itself this week as the ratification process rules for the November signature drive were announced.

This morning was particularly spectacular. On RCTV we had Rodriguez himself, the real CNE power, defending his acts. Well, rather than defending it would be fair to say that he was stating and restating that he was right, period. In all objectivity he did a decent presentation. Unfortunately keen observers would have remembered that when he was named to the CNE he did tour some talk shows, in particular the formidable Marta Colomina show at 6 AM. There he gave all assurances that the signature collection process would be fair, transparent, and what not. See what mess we are now, 4 months after the signatures were handed to the CNE and we still have to wait until tomorrow to know the final results. I wonder if he was able to dust anyone’s eyes this morning.

On Televen we had Triangulo at 7 AM. The format of that show is for 4 people to discuss amiably some issue of importance. The host is less prone to direct questioning letting the guests question each other. Thus he tends to have a better chavista attendance than other early morning folks. This morning he had 2 chavista guests, one of the them, Rodrigo Cabezas, the chairman of the finance committee of the National Assembly. I do have some admiration for Mr. Cabezas. He is one of the few chavista that actually might know what he is talking about. Perhaps this has hampered his career. He was a natural to end up in Chavez cabinet but this one has never considered him. He was a natural to try to win the Zulia governorship, but Chavez forgot him more than once. Regardless, Mr. Cabezas remains on the surface the perfect apparatchik, stone faced when the opposition talks. Repeating the same prepared lines when his turn comes, regardless of what the other side said.

The discussion was on economic matters, rather a quaint topic considering what is politically at stake for the country these days. We heard again from the chavista guests the same litany of the oil industry been sabotaged in January 2003 (the proofs please?). What was more troubling was the pretense that private investment is coming back to Venezuela, and the only things they could point out was that private oil companies were investing to increase Venezuelan production (admitting that PDVSA could not do it anymore, and thus Chavez is starting indirect privatization of the industry) and that GM would invest (as the government is going to pass supposedly some orders to the car maker). As usual, an economy driven by public spending. The mind frame of chavismo is only an aggravation of what AD left us with: all comes from oil money, and as long as there is enough for political patronage, the rulers in office are happy.

But while these people were doing their duty to pretend to reach out to the opposing side, sporting again the democratic make up, the state TV, VTV, was making sure that the faithful were not perturbed by such good dispositions. Indeed, what chavista officials might say in the private media is promptly balanced by what they say a few hours earlier or later on VTV. To witness the interview late last night of Tarek Saab the chairman the foreign relations committee.

Late night VTV has grown to exert the same role as early morning private media. In carefully prepared performances, chavista big and not so big wigs come to VTV to give the official line. Even the reporters are well chosen for that task. Vanessa Davies, to name one, is a white girl with light brown hair, almost dark blonde, who makes a point to be even more endearing when her interlocutor is of a darker shade. She can be very serious or even bubbly depending of the topic and who she has sitting across. Like other VTV hosts such as the AM one, Ernesto Villegas, it has been very interesting to see their evolution since April 2002 as they have radicalized their style, or been told to do so as the case might be.

Mr. Saab last night was doing his job, that is, trash the opposition who his colleagues were going to try to endear this morning. Just to make sure that the faithful knew quite well that it was going to be just a show. I suppose that Mr. Saab assumes that people like me never watch VTV.

Mr. Saab was referring to the disgraceful National Assembly show of Tuesday night as chavismo called for a forced 72 hours permanent session to try to force feed yet again the new law for controlling the Judicial Power. What was most notable that night was the visual image. Chavista assemblymen gathered in a defensive position the major stand where the third vice president, Noeli Pocaterra was presiding. She happens to be a Venezuelan Native American. Meanwhile, down at the benches the opposition, with less votes, was making a noisy racket to protest the way the debate was handled by the scanty chavista majority. Nothing new really in recent debating procedures of the National Assembly, But Tuesday night it was a striking image to see the folks who claim to have the support of the immense majority of the Venezuelan people acting as if they were cornered defending the last dungeon of some medieval castle. Body language often says more than words.

Perhaps Mr. Saab sensing that it was not a glorious night for his colleagues at the Assembly, came up with an explanation for their attitude: they were defending Ms. Pocaterra from the racial slurs emitted by the opposition. Well, maybe, but I can assure the reader that if Thor Ramundsen from Uppsala had being presiding from the pulpit of the National Assembly in the way Ms. Pocaterra was presiding that night, he would have been equally insulted, racial slurs and all. After all the opposition has a few dark skinned representatives.

Thus the communicational strategy of chavismo. Pretend to be cool on occasion, while making sure that the bases know what to expect, that the bases know that nasty white opposition want to hurt nice black chavistas. Does this primitivism really, really work?

At any rate, we are waiting to see what chavismo has under its sleeve now that it is making nice for a few days. Allow me to be concerned.

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