The Revolution Was Not Televised
A report on the role of TV soap operas in Venezuelan coup attempt
Whilst coups and counter coups raged in the streets of Caracas during the recent attempt to overthrow President Hugo Chavez, big business-owned TV stations in Venezuela broadcast a relentless stream of soap opera's and game shows. Jon Beasely-Murray witnessed the surreal disparity between the streets and the TV sets.
28th September 2002
So this is how a modern coup d'etat is overthrown: almost invisibly, at the margins of the media. Venezuela's return to democracy (and democracy it is, make no mistake) took place despite a self-imposed media blackout of astonishing proportions.
A huge popular revolt against an illegitimate coup regime took place while the country's middle class was watching soap operas and game shows; television networks took notice only in the very final moments, and, even then, only when they were absolutely forced to do so. Thereafter television could do no more than bear mute witness to a series of events almost without precedent in world history. A repressive regime, resulting from a pact between the Venezuelan military and big business and backed by the US was brought down less than forty-eight hours after its initial triumph.
Early Saturday afternoon, I received three phone calls in quick succession. One from somebody due to come round to the place I was staying, who called on his mobile to say he was turning back as he had heard there were barricades in the streets, and an uprising in a military base. The second call came from a journalist who also cancelled an appointment, saying that a parachute regiment and a section of the air force had rebelled. The third call came from a friend warning me that there were fire-fights in the city centre, and that a state of siege might soon be imposed. My friend added that none of this would appear on the television. I turned it on and, indeed, there was no indication on the TV that anything unusual was happening on the streets of Caracas. Other friends came by, full of similar rumours, and with word that people were gathering outside the national palace. Given the continued lack of news coverage, we decided to go out and take a look for ourselves.
Approaching the city centre, we saw that indeed crowds were converging. But as we drove around, we saw almost no sign of any police or army on the streets. In the centre itself, and at the site of Thursday's disturbances, some improvised barricades had been put up, constructed with piles of rubbish or with burning tyres, marking out the territory around the national palace itself. The demonstration was not large, but it was growing. We then headed towards the city's opulent East Side, and came across a procession of people advancing along the road towards us, people clearly poorer and more racially mixed than the East Side's usual inhabitants. They were chanting slogans in favour of Hugo Chavez, and carrying portraits of the deposed president. This march was clearly headed towards the city centre, as were a stream of buses apparently commandeered by other 'chavistas'. Neighbourhood police were eyeing them carefully, but letting them pass. If this number of demonstrators were arriving from the eastern suburbs, then many more must be converging on the palace from the working class West. We doubled back and tracked the march from parallel streets, watching as the numbers grew and passers-by were called to join in this unexpected protest.
Meanwhile, we were listening to the radio. Some reports were arriving of the crowds on the streets, but mainly we heard official pronouncements. First the army chief spoke, and we heard the signs of incipient splits among the forces behind the ruling junta: the army would continue to support interim president, Carmona, only if he reinstated Congress as well as the other democratically elected regional governors favourable to the previous regime who had been (unconstitutionally) deposed the previous day.
But, if Congress were reinstated, then, according to the constitution - and in the absence of the previous president and vice-president - the head of Congress should rightfully be next in line as head of state. Then Carmona himself was interviewed, by CNN. He declared that the situation in the city was absolutely calm and under his control, denied that he had been forced to take refuge in any army base (clearly CNN knew something we did not), downplayed any insubordination among other sectors of the armed forces, and announced that his next step might be to fire some of the military high command. Finally, the head of the national guard pronounced that respect and recognition needed to be shown to those who had supported-and continued to support-the deposed president, Chavez. The pact between military and commerce was beginning to unravel. We decided to head home.
We turned on the television. Every Venezuelan commercial station was continuing with normal programming (and the state-owned channel had been off the air since Thursday's coup). However, as we had access to cable, from BBC World and CNN "en espanol" we started to receive reports of disturbances in various parts of Caracas that morning, and some details about the parachute regiment's refusal to surrender arms to the new regime. More mobile phone calls assured us the crowd outside the palace was still growing, and still peaceful. The BBC had a reporter in the crowd, and spoke of thousands of people gathered. Darkness fell, and still no word from any of the national networks. At one point the CNN anchor pointedly asked its Caracas correspondent whether or not local television was covering this tense situation. "No," he replied.
The international channels were showing footage shot during the day, of police repression of protests in the poorer neighbourhood. The footage had been out there all along, but had not been either screened or discussed on any of the private channels.
These were the same commercial channels who had previously protested over alleged censorship under Chavez regime. Now the self-censorship of soap operas and light entertainment stood in the way of any representation of what was slowly emerging as a pro-Chavez multitude.
Indeed, the private networks had previously protested loudly and bitterly about the former president's policy of decreeing so-called 'chains', in which he obliged all the networks to broadcast his own-often long and rambling-addresses to the nation. Now the networks had instituted their own chain, the apparent diversity of variety shows masquerading a uniform silence about what was happening on the streets.
Then a development: suddenly one channel broke its regular programming to show scenes of the street outside its own headquarters. A group of thirty to forty young and mobile demonstrators, on motorcycles and scooters, were agitating outside the plate glass windows. Some rocks were thrown, some windows smashed and graffiti sprayed, and suddenly a new chain was formed as all the networks switched to the same image of demonstrators apparently "attacking" the building. But the group moved on and the soap operas resumed. Until a similar group turned up at another channel's headquarters, then another, then another. No more stones were thrown, but the demonstrations could now at least be glimpsed, in fragments (the channels splitting their screens into three, and, as one of the images turned out to be an image of the television screen itself, further still, into an endless regress of fuzzy images snatched through cracked windows and over balconies). A local pro-Chavez mayor who had been in hiding from the repression was briefly visible, apparently calling for people to remain calm. But no camera teams ventured outside, and we still had little idea as to what was happening at the presidential palace.
We were switching rapidly between channels: to CNN and the BBC at the top of the hour, and then through the various commercial channels to try to see at least a partial view of the multitude that must now be on the streets. The international channels were showing footage shot during the day, of police repression of protests in the poorer neighbourhood. The footage had been out there all along, but had not been either screened or discussed on any of the private channels. At around 10:30pm, on one of these searches through the cable stations, we saw a channel that had been dark had now come back to life. A friend phoned almost immediately: "Are you watching channel eight?" Yes, we were. State television had, amazingly, come back onto the airwaves.
The people who had taken over the state television station were clearly improvising, desperately. The colour balance and contrast of these studio images was all wrong, the cameras held by amateur hands, and only one microphone seemed to be working. Those behind the presenters' desk were nervous, one fiddling compulsively with something on the desk, another shaking while holding the microphone, but there they were: a couple of journalists, a "liberation theology" priest, and a minister and a congressman from the previous regime. The minister spoke first, and very fast. She gave a version of the violent end to Thursday's march that differed absolutely from the narrative the commercial media had put forward to justify the coup which had followed. The majority of the dead had been supporters of Chavez, she said, not opposition protester as the commercial TV had said. The snipers firing upon the crowds were members of police forces not under the regime's control. Moreover, the former president had not resigned; he was being held against his will at a naval base on an island to the north. The current president, Carmona, was the illegitimate head of a de facto regime that was the product of a military coup. Thousands of people were on the streets outside the presidential palace demanding Chavez's return. A counter-narrative was emerging.
The congressman appealed directly to the owners and managers of other television stations to portray what was happening in Caracas. However, there was no change on the other channels, most of which had returned to their regular game show programming. And then the state owned Channel Eight went off the air.
Over the next few hours, Channel Eight would go on and off the air several times. Each time the immediate fear was that it had been forcibly closed down again; each time, it turned out that technical problems were to blame as the channel was making do with a team unaccustomed to the equipment. Several times the channel attempted to show images from inside the presidential palace, but these were eventually successfully screened first on CNN: the "guard of honour" defending the palace was declaring its loyalty to Chavez. Later, around 1am, amid the confusion, we saw pictures of the vice-president, Diosdado Cabello, inside the palace, being sworn in as president. Venezuela now had three presidents simultaneously: Hugo Chavez, Pedro Carmona, and Cabello. The situation was extremely confused, the majority of the channels were still transmitting none of this, and rumours reported on the BBC suggested that two of the three - Carmona as well as Chavez - were currently being detained by different sectors of the armed forces. But the balance of power seemed to have shifted to supporters of the previous regime. The question posed by the thousands at the gates of the presidential palace and still besieging the private television stations (by now some had been forced to interview spokespeople from the crowd, while at least one had simply switched to the feed provided by Channel Eight), was: Would we see Chavez?
And so the apparently unthinkable happened. The coup plotters were surprised to discover that they're received not with apathy, but with an extraordinary and near-spontaneous multitudinous insurrection. As all the armed forces as well as the seat of power effectively passed back to the control of those loyal to the deposed regime, Shortly before 3am, Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela, returned to the presidential palace, mobbed as soon as he left his helicopter by the thousands of supporters who were now in a state of near delirium. All the television stations were now running the images provided by Channel Eight. A new 'chain' had formed, as commercial television lapsed into a form of stunned silence. The president returned to the office from which he had been broadcasting on Thursday afternoon, when he attempted to close down the private stations as the coup was unfolding. This time, however, he was no longer alone behind his desk, but flanked by most of his ministers and in a room crowded with people, buzzing with excitement and emotion. We turned the television off.
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