The streets of Venezuela’s cities have been the scene of student demonstrations for three weeks now. Young people from private universities and schools have maintained a wave of protest.
They march with placards, chanting. They block streets with barricades. They hold sit-down actions in the city centres. Some newspaper commentators have compared this wave of student protest to May 1968 or the great university reform movement that started in Cordoba, Argentina, in 1918, and swept through Latin America.
But the analogy is a false and dangerous one. Because these are people mobilised by right wing groups opposed to the radical Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. The students are the stalking horses of a new and wider strategy.
It began on 27 May, when Chavez announced that the opposition TV channel RCTV would not have its licence renewed and would cease to broadcast.
RCTV is by no means the only TV channel hostile to the Chavez regime – something like six out of the remaining ten are consistently critical of him. Their content is a mix of soap operas, US TV imports and very bad game shows interwoven with news bulletins that seem to show crowds attacking some government measure or another.
The mass media in Venezuela have always played a key role in mobilising the opposition to Chavez – and in very direct ways. In the period leading up the coup attempt against him in April 2002, the right wing media broadcast continuous crisis bulletins, while suspending normal programming.
They also gave a carefully edited version of every march and protest. It is a method tried and tested elsewhere in Latin America.
Today, it is reflected in the coverage given to the student demonstrations. In one of Venezuela’s papers last week there were eight different opinion columns, and pages of reports, supporting the students as the leaders of tomorrow. It’s very hard to imagine a student demonstration in May 1968 demanding a right wing TV channel be reopened.
It is represented, of course, as an issue of freedom of speech. This explains why the governments of Chile and Spain among others have asked Venezuela to reverse its decision.
But with so many other channels of expression open to the capitalists here, it is an argument that holds little water. And still less when it becomes clear that RCTV is a relatively small player. The big conglomerates remain untouched and continue unrestricted.
Chavez supporters control just two TV channels.
It’s a complex situation. The students are pawns in a game whose purpose is to undermine the Chavez regime from the right through a campaign of criticism which creates a tense atmosphere. You can certainly feel it here in all sorts of ways.
Official sources talk about “a soft coup”, a reference to the way that similar tactics were used in the run up to General Pinochet’s 1973 coup in Chile. Yet the reality is that big capital within Venezuela is remarkably free to act. In many ways Chavez has gone out of his way to negotiate with capitalists, both local and multinational.
There have been plenty of students coming out in support of Chavez, of course. It used to be the case that the big state universities were open to working class students – which is why they were always hotbeds of revolutionary politics.
The Central University in Caracas was closed down several times. In that situation, the defence of university autonomy is a struggle to defend a political space for the left.
Over the last 20 years, however, these universities have become more technocratic and competitive, making it much more difficult for working class students to get in and changing the atmosphere dramatically. The Central University is now dominated by right wing middle class students.
Chavez has created new universities and the Mision Sucre to provide higher education to the poor, including sending lecturers into the poor suburbs. There are something like 500,000 people involved in the programme. None of them were to be found marching to save RCTV!
Mike Gonzalez will be writing a series of columns from Venezuela