The Listening Post

Chavez off the air

Examining the media battle surrounding Venezuela’s invisible president.

For the past month, Venezuelans have been watching a curious and very serious drama unfold on their television screens.

At the centre of the story is Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s president. The man who has dominated politics for more than a decade has been off the air, out of sight for six weeks now, but very much in the news.

Chavez is reportedly still in Cuba undergoing cancer treatment. In his absence, the president’s chair has sat empty and both sides of Venezuela’s deeply polarised media are fighting to control the narrative.

State media have been tasked with keeping an absent Chavez in the public eye. The state-run Telesur – or ‘Tele-Chavez’ as its critics see it – is struggling to fill airtime with their main man away from the cameras, especially while the opposition are raising uncomfortable questions not only about Chavez’s health but also about the political future of the country.

Listening Post’s Marcela Pizarro looks at the president’s failing health, what is at stake politically and the media battle that is so central to the story. She talks to former Venezuelan communications minister, Andres Izarra; Sebastian de la Nuez, from Universidad Católica Andrés Bello; Elsy Barroeta, the executive producer for Globovision News; and the author Oscar Guardiola-Rivera.

“The story of Chavez and the media goes a long way back. It isn’t unique to Chavez, it isn’t unique in Latin America, but it is singular to left-leaning leaders in Latin America, who are confronting media who belong to monopolistic economic groups. Chavez has created another space for the formation of opinion and information …

In the case of Chavez and his relationship with state media, there is always the danger that he becomes the sole protagonist of the story. Better coverage would be one that focuses also how these social movements are inventing political institutions of their own. That story tends not to be told, not even by state media sympathetic to Chavez and there is always a risk that, if you concentrate solely on the figure, once the figure is absent, once the figure is not there, you find yourself without the real story.”

Oscar Guardiola-Rivera, the author of What if Latin America Ruled the World?