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  HOME | Opinion (Click here for more)

Joel Hirst: The Bolivarian Alliance & the Hugo Chavez Propaganda Machine

By Joel D. Hirst

“We have to elaborate a new plan, and the one that we propose is the communicational and informational hegemony of the state,” said Andres Izarra, current President of TeleSUR (the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America {ALBA} international cable news station) in an interview in January of 2007. In May of that same year the Chavez government cancelled the broadcasting license for Radio Caracas Television (RCTV), the most important independent television station in Venezuela.

Keenly aware of the strategic importance of propaganda in their attempts to usher in their 21st Century Socialism, the ALBA has embarked upon an ambitious plan to control information across the hemisphere. Their work began in 2005 with the establishment of the cable news network TeleSUR. This channel, with participation of the governments of Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Uruguay and Argentina, was founded to counter CNN and promote the integration of Latin America. TeleSUR rose to prominence in part for its active role in pushing for the reinstatement of the former Honduran President “Mel” Zelaya, after he was removed from office for promoting an illegal referendum.

The ALBA has continued to support other efforts at “communicational hegemony.” This includes the purchase of a Chinese satellite and running fiber optic cables from Cuba to Venezuela and then to Nicaragua (a project slated to begin in 2011). Supported by this infrastructure, the ALBA has established a series of online services for radio and television such as ALBA-TV, ALBA Ciudad 96.3, the Radio of the South, and ALBA Multi-Channel. These networks allow the organization to extend literally thousands of well produced documentaries, videos, interviews, news programs and movies in an online format across the breadth of the continent. Naturally, the programs carry the distinct political messages of the Bolivarians – some of which encourage conflict with the United States and important sectors of their own societies.

The Bolivarians have also been busy setting up community radio stations. In December of 2009, the ALBA held a special meeting of 38 community radios serving the indigenous population of Bolivia. In Nicaragua the FSLN controls dozens of radio stations, and in Venezuela alone there may be over 200.

I myself visited one of these stations in 2005. It was a humble establishment, tucked away in a back room of a decrepit house in a rural area of the country. On a broken down wooden desk sat a desktop computer for managing content, connected to a small transmitter with a reach of just under twenty kilometers. The station manager had saved enough money to purchase a small recorder for his interviews in the village.

I spent an entire day with these good people, whose major role they told me innocently was “to warn the Venezuelan people in the case of an invasion by the empire.” “The worst challenge we have” the elderly woman who ran the station confided, “is the lack of good radio content.” A challenge made easier by the ALBA’s online services.


In addition, the ALBA has sought, with less success, to influence large national television stations. In Nicaragua, funding from ALBA through Daniel Ortega’s ALBANISA allowed the organization to purchase Channel 8, the largest independent TV station in Nicaragua.

In Honduras during the Zelaya Administration, the government’s broadcasting authority seized Honduras’ Channel 8, which became Mr. Zelaya’s most important tool for state propaganda. In Venezuela, the government now controls and owns eight public TV stations, with only one national independent channel remaining. This significant presence of state propaganda, coupled with the open hostility in ALBA countries to the free press, has resulted in the clear and systematic reversal of press freedoms (see Reporters Without Borders annual Press Freedoms Index).

Washington has faced communication challenges in the past. A policy document from the Heritage Foundation, dated September 7, 1995, outlined the dangers of cutting the funding to Voice of America (VOA) and losing the ability to communicate American values. “It was ideas and information, not bombs and bullets, that ultimately brought the Soviet edifice crumbling down” the document eloquently states. The new Broadcasting Board of Governors chairman, Walter Isaacson, whose portfolio includes VOA, reiterated these same concerns in an interview in October 2010, emphasizing that “We can’t allow ourselves to be out-communicated by our enemies” referring to, among others, TeleSUR. While he later retracted his use of the politically charged word “enemies,” the point stands.

And the ALBA’s propaganda is working. In a recent survey carried out by M&R consulting in Nicaragua, 50% of respondents identified Venezuela as their greatest friend (in terms of cooperation), compared with only 18% for the United States. Washington clearly must improve if it is to counter the robust propaganda machine the ALBA is deploying across the region.

On a positive note, as the Heritage document outlines, “America has a natural advantage in promoting U.S. interests and values in the world, unlike dictatorships which have to lie, since most people aspire to the values America represents.” It is high time Washington re-emphasizes these values.

Joel D. Hirst is an International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in Washington where he is researching Venezuela and the Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA). He was USAID Acting Country Representative in Venezuela from 2004 to 2008. He can be contacted at jhirst@cfr.org, www.joelhirst.com, www.twitter.com/joelhirst or his public facebook page

 

 

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