This year in Venezuela is a general election year and like in any country when general elections occur, it becomes a drawn out year of circus-like journalism. Politicians photoshopped into clowns on the front pages, slip of the tongues digitized into repetitive thirty second sound bites, often accompanied by the playing of horns or other equally brash instruments, the completely irrelevant outing of a candidate's sexuality, the subsequent denial, the list goes on. Entertaining to those who have little to say, weary to those who realize that the banal may just overshadow what is truly important and that great things may be misinterpreted in favor of commercial spin or what is commonly known, or should be widely explained, as lies. In Venezuela, much is happening, but what is known is a different story. And as the world goes round, spin is deciding how it turns. So far, the axis pivots on a one-way truth; Chavez is a dictator and the country is falling to pieces.
On the ground, despite the odds of an alleged tyranny, Venezuela still hosts a healthy degree of parity in terms of agreement and disagreement with Hugo Chavez's take on socialism. Since his rise to government, Venezuela has been in constant heated debate and whereas everyone was once side-lined and dry-mouthed, now they all want a say in politics. The president's popularity oscillates between 51 to 60 percent, depending on who surveys. Still, they are resilient figures for a politician who has survived kidnappings, imprisonment, coup d'états and of course, two democratically held general elections. The opposition still dominates the majority of the media, owning the country's three most popular daily newspapers, including Ultimas Noticias, owned by no other than the main opposition candidate himself, Capriles Radonski. Also belonging to the right's mediatic artillery is one of Caracas' most listened to radio stations, Radio Caracas Radio, and many of the television channels, such as Globovision and Venevision. The 2002 coup was in large part orchestrated by right wing media groups. The day of the president's kidnapping, all that could be seen on the small TV screens that flickered constantly in most homes were cartoons. On Chavez' return, two days later, one of the main television channels responsible for not only the masquerade but the very coup itself, Venezolana de Television, or Canal 8, was taken over by the state. Since then, those who spun now spurn, and embittered by the event, accuse relentlessly the government of removing their right to freedom of speech.
This year and the last, Chavez has also been battling prostate cancer and is constantly toing and froing between Caracas and Cuba, undergoing an intense course of radiotherapy. This has provided ample inspiration for those in opposition. The general trail of thought is: "If we can just convince the people he is dying, we might just have a shot at winning this year." A dying dictator? Great stuff, almost too good to be true. Which means, of course, that it isn't. This was demonstrated upon the revelation that the doctor who had been selling the sob-story to the press had in fact never met Chavez, let alone conducted a medical consultation within the due privacy of a clinical ward.
Yet spin spins far, at least as far to Miami where many of Venezuela's economical elite live in luxurious self-ordained exile. To them, Chavez has already died, and on television, tears lament the loss of a country to the ambitions of a tyrant, whilst other tears sober up with hope and rejoice at how now they may be able to return. And there is no need for a neon sign that says "audience applause please", the studio is already at ecstatic fever pitch. Meanwhile, record levels of literacy, the lowest indexes of poverty, free education, free health care and subsidized food products have yet to feature in the news reels.
Indeed, spin is selective, or worse still, trips up on its own momentum. A couple of months ago, Venezuela's dictatorship held free (and internationally monitored) elections in order to decide who would be the main opposing candidate to challenge Chavez in the presidential elections on October 7. I also took a walk round town that day and found the atmosphere to be for many a joyous one. A day out in town, tempered and softened by it being a calm Sunday, a chance for partakers to gather amongst like-minded people, to rant and rally, to participate in an important event, and to then go home. One gentleman, the tip of his index finger painted in ink after having cast his vote, approached me and shared a huff. "Here we are suppressed. We cannot voice what we think. This is a dictatorship". He then pulled out his blackberry phone to call his brother, who was also voting in another part of town.
The government of course has its own tactics at blotching out what is ill in favor. Sometimes it skips about like Alice in Wonderland and blushes before budget reports. Numerous are the politicians who do not so much as talk, but open and shut mouth in order to facilitate the exit of propaganda and the entry of oxygen. Politics, it seems, can be as stationary in revolution as it can be in rest.
So what is happening in Venezuela, or anywhere else for that matter? Apart from going there to see for oneself, which is the best solution but the most complicated logistically, the answer would have to be the handling of a shovel to dig a little deeper. If elections mean anything, they should be about choice.
For a good, English-speaking documentary on the 2002 coup, watch The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, or Chavez: Inside The Coup, directed by Kim Bartley and Donnacha O Brian.