CANTV Venezuela: What’s at Stake?

Available in Spanish. Kindly translated by Daniel Urbina

Since the election of Hugo Chavez in 1998, his passing of a package of 49 laws meant to implement a process of fundamental social and political transition[1] and, especially, since a failed coup attempt in 2002,[2] the Bolivarian Revolution has carried on. It has faced both foreign and domestic enemies, and it has not been free of internal problem such as mismanagement, opportunism and corruption. Yet, by launching both land- and oil industry reform, it has also driven forward policies of economic support for workers, the poor, and indigenous people; and it has established new mechanisms for popular participation. Challenging neoliberalism, the Bolivarian Revolution has produced some real gains for the Venezuelan majority.

Communications have been unusually important in this wider program of transformation. Emboldened somewhat by Chavez’s 2007 call for an “explosion of communal power,” local community media have possessed an uncomfortable status: at once reliant on the central state and needfully independent of it.[3] These media reform efforts have also occurred within the context of a media political economy that was structured predominantly around the interests of capital. Venevision is a commercial broadcast service with a 67% share of the audience and is owned by Gustavo Cisneros, whose net worth in 2013 was estimated at $4.4 billion.[4] Similarly, meanwhile, “The New Television Station of the South” Telesur – a pan-Latin American network headquartered in Caracas but a collaborative effort between Venezuela (51%), Argentina (20%), Cuba (14%), Uruguay (10%), and Bolivia (5%)[5] – had to square off against the well-funded CNN and other largely hostile international media. Many participants in the Bolivarian Revolution understood that, by mobilizing in this strategic field, they were mounting a challenge to an inequitable and deeply rooted existing order in communications.

President Chavez in fact broke sharply with the neoliberalism that, during the 1990s, succeeded in privatizing national telecommunications operators in dozens of less-developed countries; opening the companies that resulted to foreign investment; laying off many of their workers and outsourcing work to still other private companies. With the price of oil high and oil revenue pumping dollars into the state, and with the Right still momentarily off-balance following the failed 2002 coup attempt, Chavez renationalized CANTV – Venezuela’s major telecommunications company, and the second largest enterprise in the country after the state oil company, PDVSA.[6] Fifteen years after CANTV had been privatized, in order to complete the process of taking back control of national telecommunications, the Bolivarian Revolution had to find $572 million to pay the US telecom giant Verizon for the 28.5% stake it had acquired in CANTV.[7]

CANTV thereupon began to develop its own often-uncharted agenda for public provision of telecommunications, within the network-intensive but inclement global political economy of digital capitalism. Yes: profit-driven networks must be reorganized in order to serve popular needs – but how, exactly? With all of the difficulties, the uncertainties, the pushes and pulls and stresses and reverses and attacks, CANTV began to elaborate an alternative model. In the wider ongoing context of the Bolivarian restructuring of communications, this unfinished project held its own distinct importance.

The Chavez government declared that access to telecommunications is a basic human right.[8] Venezuela then contracted with China in 2008 to launch its first satellite, with the goal of providing the Internet and other telecommunication services to underserved areas and to expand its reach to poor, indigenous and remote communities farther away from the nation’s port cities and foreign connections.[9] This was the first publicly-owned satellite to serve South America and the Caribbean – and an attempt to restore public media. The US tried to pressure China to stop the satellite launch; however, China brushed off the US request.[10] Domestically, the result was to improve service to poorer parts of the country, and this was accompanied by the development of means for telecom workers and community members to give input into the shape and character of the services produced and utilized. Community media groups, meanwhile, launched vitalizing experiments – again, often in an uneasy relationship with the state – in participation and decision-making for democratic communications.

Internationally, Venezuela began to establish the principle that “a different reality is possible” in the face of a neoliberal ascendancy that was renewed, after 2008 amid a ravaging depression, by escalating U.S. economic warfare and a sharpening domestic capitalist class counter-offensive.[11] In addition, as the international price of oil plummeted, hitting Venezuela’s revenue base, inflation surged and crime increased.  However incomplete and contradictory, however inadequate, the Bolivarian program — including its initiatives around community media, international broadcasting, and CANTV – continued to strike against the norms carried by commercial capital’s network systems worldwide, in which profit, rather than social need, is decisive.

It therefore is no accident that, within hours of the 6 December 2015 election that returned a legislative majority to the Right, the now-emboldened opposition announced its intention to reprivatize CANTV as one plank in its encompassing neoliberal program. Thousands of CANTV workers thereupon mobilized and protested against such an action and in support of the social programs implemented by Chavez and promoted by President Maduro. They specifically demanded that Maduro, much-weakened by the election result, sustain CANTV’s Bolivarian direction.[12] Class struggle over the direction of the country therefore sharpened again.

This drama is of course most immediately consequential – indeed, momentous – for the people of Venezuela. Yet it also possesses crucial international import. What future exists beyond neoliberalism? How may we reorganize the digital realm to make it supportive of human needs? This urgent question helps us to see what is really at stake in the still-uncertain fate of CANTV and of Venezuela’s larger program of change in communication.

 

 

[1] Dick Nichols, “Class struggles looms in Venezuela,” ZNET, February 13, 2003.

[2]The US roles in the failed attempt to overthrow Hugo Chaves,” Telesur, November 18, 2015.

[3] Richard Potter, “Community Media and Civil Society: Lessons from the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela,” Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2014 ; Gregory Wilpert, “Chavez Announces Nationalizations, Constitutional Reform for Socialism in Venezuela,” venezuelanalysis.com, January 8, 2007; Robert Duffy & Robert Everton, “Media, Democracy, and State in Venezuela’s ‘Bolivarian Revolution,'” in Global Communications: Toward a Transcultural Political Economy, 2008, ed.  Paula Chakravartty & Yuezhi Zhao, 120-140.

[4] Ricardo Geromel, “What Does Chavez’s Death Mean For Venezuela’s Billionaires?Forbes, March 5, 2013.

[5] James Painter, “The Boom in Counter-Hegemonic News Channels: A Case study of TeleSUR,” Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism: Oxford University, 2007.

[6] CANTV began as a private company, then nationalised in 1953, before being privatised in 1991.

[7] Raul Gallegos, “Venezuela to Pay $572 Million for Verizon’s CANTV Stake,” Wall Street Journal, February 13, 2007.

[8]Venezuela’s CANTV: What should a 21st century “socialist” telecommunications company look like?” tni, March 4, 2010.

[9] John Haffner, “Alternatives to privatized telecommunication,” Right2Know, March 15, 2015.

[10] Tamara Pearson, “Venezuela Launches its First Satellite,” Venezuelanalysis.com, October 30, 2008; John Jones, Faces of capitalism and socialism: what we know and what we think we know. Trafford Pub., 2009.

[11] Wayne Madsen, “Obama Authorizes Covert Economic War Against Venezuela,” Global Research, January 18, 2010 ; Jeff Mason and Roberta Rampton, “Obama Decalres Venezuela A Threat To U.S. National Security,” Reuters, May 9, 2015.

[12]Venezuelan Workers Protest Privatization,” Prensa Latina, December 15, 2015.

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