Channeling the State: Community Media and Popular Politics in Venezuela

Channeling the State: Community Media and Popular Politics in Venezuela

by Naomi Schiller

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Overview

Venezuela's most prominent community television station, Catia TVe, was launched in 2000 by activists from the barrios of Caracas. Run on the principle that state resources should serve as a weapon of the poor to advance revolutionary social change, the station covered everything from Hugo Chávez’s speeches to barrio residents' complaints about bureaucratic mismanagement. In Channeling the State, Naomi Schiller explores how and why Catia TVe's founders embraced alliances with Venezuelan state officials and institutions. Drawing on long-term ethnographic research among the station's participants, Schiller shows how community television production created unique openings for Caracas's urban poor to embrace the state as a collective process with transformative potential. Rather than an unchangeable entity built for the exercise of elite power, the state emerges in Schiller's analysis as an uneven, variable process and a contentious terrain where institutions are continuously made and remade. In Venezuela under Chávez, media activists from poor communities did not assert their autonomy from the state but rather forged ties with the middle class to question whose state they were constructing and who it represented.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781478001447
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 10/19/2018
Series: Radical Americas Series
Pages: 296
Sales rank: 1,216,390
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Naomi Schiller is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Brooklyn College, City University of New York.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

STATE–MEDIA RELATIONS AND THE RISE OF CATIA TVe

José, a twenty-seven-year-old taxicab driver, bounced his knee furiously up and down. "It's freezing in here," I whispered to him. José smiled nervously and steadied his knee. "It's not that I'm cold," he confided. "I've just never been on television before." José and I joined sixteen community activists, teachers, and community media producers in Catia TVe's heavily air-conditioned television studio. Luis, the host of that evening's show, settled into one of the mix-matched chairs arranged in a semicircle in front of two massive studio cameras. Catia TVe's founders acquired the cameras, cables, and microphones, and almost everything else in the station, through their publicity contract with the state oil company. Adeptly attaching a tiny microphone to the collar of his T-shirt, Luis warmly reassured his guests that all that was required of them was to continue the conversation they had been having for weeks about what kind of programming they thought should be broadcast on a new state-run television station. In a controversial move, President Chávez had announced just a few months before, in December 2006, that his government planned to replace a commercial television network staunchly critical of the government with a new state-run network. In the months following the announcement, Catia TVe organized a series of talks with local community organizers about how people from the barrio could participate in producing material for the new television state. "Why not broadcast our discussion?" Luis suggested at the close of the last gathering. So there we were.

My aim in this chapter is to understand the conditions that led to Catia TVe's founders to join forces with the Chávez government to remake Venezuela's media world. I briefly look back at the development of the television industry in Venezuela to unearth some of the alliances, tensions, and interconnections between ruling elites who exercised control over state institutions, powerful business owners who held the monopoly over communications, intellectuals who sought to create a more democratic communications system, and activists who engaged the tools of community media to advance social justice.

Observers and activists have often framed the Chávez government's policies as a vast departure from previous relations between media makers and the state, as if before the Chávez era, media producers and owners had exercised full autonomy from official state actors. In fact, as I explore in the first half of this chapter, past interdependencies between state authorities and media makers have been multiple, significant, and, in many ways, taken for granted. Here I place the Chávez government's policy shifts regarding media within a long history of struggle, collusion, and compromise between commercial media and Venezuelan governments. I point to the roots of the contemporary community media movement in the 1970s debates about the need for a "New World Information and Communications Order."

In the second half of the chapter, I document how, under the Chávez government, barrio-based actors, middle-class allies, state employees, and international allies jointly produced new experiments in state and community television in Venezuela. In these projects, the interconnections between state, economy, and media were redrawn in ways that diverged markedly, although not entirely, from the patterns of liberal and neoliberal capitalist projects of previous administrations. This overview of state–media relations in Venezuela uncovers how marking borders between mutually constitutive social fields of state and society "generates resources of power," including "effects of agency and partial autonomy, with concrete consequences" (Mitchell 1999, 83, 84). Analyzing the Chávez government's approach to Venezuela's media world alongside those of previous administrations illustrates how differently positioned social actors mobilize rhetorics of autonomy toward distinct political ends.

Setting the Scene

"Good evening." Luis looked steadily into one of the two studio cameras that encircled the group of invited guests. "Tonight we want to talk about the relationship between communal councils and the new television station. You don't have to be a filmmaker to create television. You may be a lawyer, a mechanic, a bus driver, or a housewife, but you have the responsibility to participate. And I think this is the moment. You, out there, spread the word! We need to discuss this on the corner, down your alley."

By 2007, when I observed the filming of this program, Luis had been moderating his studio talk show in one form or another for nearly ten years. Luis was full of a seemingly boundless energy; only his silver beard betrayed his almost fifty years. Over the course of my fieldwork, I heard Luis make a similar call for widespread participation in media production countless times. His list of professions — lawyer, bus driver, housewife, mechanic — was a way for Luis to index social class status and make clear that one didn't need elite professional training to be a media producer. Luis and his colleagues often expanded their call by noting that it didn't matter if people were "black, fat, or missing an eye." Luis and his Catia TVe colleagues' invitation for widespread participation challenged the racial, class, and gender hierarchy that characterized most television programming broadcast in Venezuela. They made a claim to transform their media world by changing who was in front of and behind the television camera. Community media activists at Catia TVe did so in close collaboration with the Chávez government, a fact that was evident in every corner of their television station.

Luis's composed demeanor betrayed no trace of the harried scene I'd witnessed just half an hour before. Luis had dashed around Catia TVe's two-story building trying to recruit camera operators for the program. His schedule had been irregular in the proceeding weeks and none of his colleagues remembered that they would be needed that evening to film his show. The guests on his program were already arriving as I followed Luis around the station pleading for camera operators. At our first stop in the production office, we found Douglas, a stocky man in his mid-thirties. He was one of the five Catia TVe staff members responsible for producing programming. Douglas was intensely focused; he was editing footage on a shiny new Mac computer the station had just purchased using funds from a publicity contract with the state oil company. Luis's effort to cajole Douglas into being a cameraperson for his studio program proved futile. Douglas scratched his short-cropped head of curls, explaining apologetically that he was about to leave to film a dance performance that evening at the National Theater.

I continued to follow Luis around the large rectangular atrium at the center of Catia TVe's headquarters, a sizeable building constructed in the late 1800s to serve as horse stables for President Joaquín Crespo.1 The minister of the interior granted Catia TVe a rent-free fifty-year lease in 2003, providing a vital long-term subsidy to support their community television project. The building is located in the historic center of Caracas in a neighborhood called Caño Amarillo, named for the spectacular yellow flowers that once bloomed in the area. By 2007, the few remaining historic buildings were surrounded by poor neighborhoods. An elevated portion of the Caracas metro cuts through the densely packed houses of cement blocks and zinc roofing, noisily passing just twenty feet in front of Catia TVe's headquarters.

Luis led me to the station's transmission office, a dark, windowless room in the back of the building with the feel of an airplane cockpit. Edilson, a staff member in his late twenties, sat in front of two computer screens, three keyboards, countless knobs, and four television screens that were tuned to different channels. At the time, Catia TVe was on the air from 10 A.M. to 10 P.M. Edilson was responsible for organizing the day's programming schedule, which consisted of programs produced by Catia TVe's unpaid volunteers and paid staff, as well as documentaries made in Venezuela and abroad. Catia TVe also regularly broadcast Chávez's speeches. The station was under legal obligation, as were all media outlets based in Venezuela, to broadcast certain official transmissions. Catia TVe's staff regularly chose to broadcast many of Chávez's speeches that the Ministry of Information and Communication had not designated as obligatory. Between this lineup of programming, Edilson and his colleagues interspersed paid content, which consisted of official promotional segments produced by state institutions that celebrated the accomplishments of the Bolivarian Revolution.

"Epa, Harry Potter!" Luis shouted. Edilson's new round glasses had inspired his latest nickname. The glasses, like the braces that glinted in Edilson's mouth, were signs of his new access to steady income and health insurance as an employee at Catia TVe. "The show begins in twenty-five minutes," Luis informed Edilson and was out the door. He headed toward the front offices of the building. There on a balcony just outside the outreach department, Luis found just what he was looking for: Jesica, a staff member, and Rosemery, a volunteer, were sharing a cigarette. "Ay, mi amor," Luis enveloped Rosemery in a bear hug. "Mi vida," he kissed Jesica on the cheek. Luis had to wait a moment for a subway to blast by us before making his appeal for their help in the studio. With some coaxing and a promise that Luis would find the women a ride home to their respective barrios after the program was over, Jesica and Rosemery agreed to operate the cameras for his show. As a volunteer, Rosemery was not remunerated for her labor. Jesica earned minimum wage, as did the station's other thirty employees, which at that time included security guards, custodial staff, accountants, and media producers. The minimum wage was about $400 per month during my fieldwork, which was enough to cover Jesica's expenses in the household she shared with her parents.

Once the program began back in the studio, Luis held out a microphone to invite one of his program's guests to begin the discussion about how the local community organizations, known as communal councils, might influence the direction of the new state-run television station. Communal councils, legalized in 2006, allow groups of 200 to 400 families in urban areas (fewer are required in rural zones) to directly administer government funding for local housing and public works projects. A young man answered Luis's invitation, requesting the microphone. "Look, I'm trying to organize a communal council but I'm a bit stuck. I don't know how to proceed." Luis gestured for the young man to hold the microphone closer to his mouth so he could be heard over the air. The man overcompensated, pressing the foam of the microphone into his lower lip, his voice now painfully loud. "I saw a presentation from the mayor's office about communal councils," the man continued, tugging his T- shirt over his protruding belly, "but there's been no follow-up and I guess you could say that I'm looking for direction."

Lidice, a Catia TVe volunteer in her early sixties, reached for the microphone. "You need to consult the law about how to form a communal council," she instructed the young man. "There are books and PowerPoint presentations. The mayor's office can help you proceed." She paused and shifted in her plastic chair, sitting up a bit taller. "But what I want to say is this: the people who are going to organize the communal councils should be the inhabitants of that sector. This is the challenge that we all face in order to actually construct participatory and protagonistic democracy in concrete ways, and not reproduce representative democracy. You see, the idea of the communal council is to create a structure that will break with the old model of representation. You can't wait for the institutions to do things for you." Like other ardent activists, Lidice was adamant that they needed to assume leadership and initiative.

A skinny woman a few chairs away gestured for the microphone. As she started to speak, Rosemery tripped over a thick black cable connected to her camera, distracting several of the participants. After an awkward pause as Rosemery found her balance, the woman continued. "We need to appropriate the media so that we can inform people of their rights. Are the institutions really in favor of the people [el pueblo]? We have to remember that we still have structures of the fourth regime [the previous government] and to this date we haven't transformed them. So as we are transforming the media, we are transforming this structure. We don't need outside experts."

In many ways, Luis's program was what you might expect of community television: a barebones set with mismatched furniture, jerky camera movements, and uneven sound. The conversation was improvised; the participants immediately veered away from Luis's initial invocation to focus on what was on their minds. In the harsh studio light, faces were shiny and pockmarked. Stomachs spilled over tight waistbands. With its small audiences and low production values, community television might seem outdated, even comical.

And yet everyone in the room was riveted. Regardless of who was watching the broadcast over Catia TVe's airwaves, the space of the station's television studio became a forum for energetic debate, discussion, and information sharing. In the first few minutes of the program, the participants posed the central questions facing the Bolivarian Revolution. Could they and should they draw boundaries between their community activism and state institutions? Was the state a collective unfolding project of which they were a part, or was it an outside threat to community organizations? Could poor people's embrace of the tools to represent themselves allow them to transform, as one of the guests argued, the broader political and social structure?

Sitting in the back of the studio that evening, I noted the seemingly contradictory ways that Luis and his guests invoked the state. Throughout the program they spoke of the need to defend themselves from the impositions of las instituciones. They made clear that existing institutions, many of which had been formed under previous ruling regimes, were not necessarily on the side of "the people," by which they meant the impoverished majority. Yet in their conversation they described the state as both a set of institutions that might co-opt community organizations and, crucially, as a site of possibility, open to their involvement. The material reality of their surroundings — the flow of petrodollars that supported grassroots projects — provided evidence of the web of social relations that connected activists, official state institutions, and the global oil economy. Seizing the tools of media production made possible through these relations was a vital part of Catia TVe activists' efforts to challenge the historic processes of dispossession that left barrio communities impoverished and marginalized. Nevertheless, the ongoing question of how their reliance on "outside experts" and "the institutions" might compromise their ability to meet their goals and make local decisions worried Catia TVe producers and many of their pro-revolution allies who had adopted the challenge of building communal councils.

In the sections that follow, I place the conversation that unfolded that evening during Luis's studio program within the intertwined history of mass media and community media in Venezuela. The Chávez government and its allies' attempt to remake Venezuela's media world was not, in fact, as stark a departure from past practice as both left- and right-wing political observers have claimed. The Chávez government's close relationship with media producers, efforts to democratize access to media, and attempts to control what was sayable in the press had historical precedent.

Early Decades of Television

The modernizing dictator Pérez Jiménez (1952–58) welcomed television into Venezuela in 1952, following only eight other nations in the world (Mayobre 1996, 240). With the development of the oil industry in the early twentieth century, Venezuela had been transformed from an agricultural nation focused on coffee and cocoa production to one of the world's most important oil exporters, with close connections to American corporations (Tinker Salas 2009). Rather than building a state-run public model for media like that of Western Europe, Jiménez and later liberal democratic governments chose to follow an American commercial model. The new medium quickly became predominantly corporate-owned, advertising-supported, and dependent on U.S. programming to fill its program hours. Unlike many postcolonial Third World nations, the aim of Venezuelan television was not educational uplift. In contrast with Egypt, for example, where Lila Abu-Lughod notes that television's "addressee was the citizen, not the consumer" (2005, 11), the ideal target of Venezuelan television was indisputably the consumer. The Jiménez government devoted little attention to developing public television networks. The state channel, Televisora Nacional de Venezuela, TVN-5, inaugurated in 1952, reached only parts of Caracas and was underfunded and little watched. A second state channel, Venezolana de Televisión or VTV, as it is commonly known today, was not launched until 1976. From the outset, then, a central goal of Venezuelan television was to deliver audiences to advertisers. Television enriched media and business owners, who were closely connected to state officials. While newspapers and radio continued to play a key role in Venezuelan politics and everyday life, television quickly became the most prominent means of mass communication (Bisbal 2005).

(Continues…)


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Table of Contents

Preface  ix
Acknowledgments  xiii
Introduction  1
1. State-Media Relations and the Rise of Catia TVe  23
2. Community Media as Everyday State Formation  62
3. Class Acts  89
4. Channeling Chávez  128
5. Mediating Women  164
6. Reckoning with Press Freedom  196
Conclusion  227
Notes  241
References  251
Index  269

What People are Saying About This

The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World - Greg Grandin

"In this era of fake news and cascading global crises, Naomi Schiller's Channeling the State couldn't be more timely. Schiller, based on extensive fieldwork in Caracas barrios during the height of Bolivarianismo's popularity, has written the definitive account of the crucial role community television plays as the besieged Bolivarian state struggles to reclaim its original idealism. Schiller's analysis of everyday forms of 'free speech' is lucid, intelligent, and convincing. Channeling the State is a tour de force that provides a model for how to do holistic political ethnography, one that focuses not on social movements nor state bureaucracies but on the mutually constitutive relationship between the two."

Who Can Stop the Drums? Urban Social Movements in Chavez's Venezuela - Sujatha Fernandes

"In this engrossing and lively ethnography, Naomi Schiller takes us deep into the world of community television production in the era of Hugo Chávez. She shows how barrio-based Catia TVe made available new ways for media producers to shape the Bolivarian project in the interests of poor people. Channeling the State is an important contribution to the literature on social change under Chávez and a valuable resource for understanding modes of popular participation."

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