De­fy­ing Chávez’s iron fist

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION - JaCk­Son dIeHl

Dur­ing one of his in­ter­minable ap­pear­ances on na­tional tele­vi­sion, Hugo Chávez de­manded to know last month why Guillermo Zu­loaga, the ma­jor­ity owner of Venezuela’s last op­po­si­tion tele­vi­sion sta­tion, was not in jail. “How is it pos­si­ble that he can ac­cuse me of such things and walk free?” the strong­man de­manded.

The an­swer is fairly sim­ple: Zu­loaga’s state­ments about Chávez were hardly crim­i­nal, and years of govern­ment in­ves­ti­ga­tions had turned up noth­ing else pros­e­cu­tors could plau­si­bly use against him. But that, of course, was not the re­sponse of Chavez’s hench­men. Within days of the broad­cast, an in­ves­ti­ga­tion against the busi­ness­man that had been aban­doned was re­opened; charges were filed. On June 11, a judge or­dered Zu­loaga ar­rested and con­fined to one of the coun­try’s high-se­cu­rity pris­ons.

By then, the 67-year-old owner of Globo­vi­sion, an all-news chan­nel that is now the only al­ter­na­tive in Venezuela to govern­ment pro­pa­ganda, was no longer in the coun­try. Like Globo­vi­sion’s mi­nor­ity owner, an­other busi­ness­man whose bank was taken over by the govern­ment three days af­ter the ar­rest war­rant, Zu­loaga sought refuge in the United States. Last week he and his son, whose ar­rest was also or­dered, were in Washington, where they were con­sid­er­ing mak­ing a request for asy­lum.

“It never crossed my mind that I would be forced to live some­place be­sides Venezuela,” Zu­loaga told me in an in­ter­view. “But I can’t be of much help to any­one if I am in a high­se­cu­rity prison. And I think it’s pub­lic knowl­edge that all of the in­sti­tu­tions of jus­tice in Venezuela are con­trolled by the pres­i­dent.”

Zu­loaga’s own cases of­fers. vivid proof of that. Judges who have dared to rule in his fa­vor have been sum­mar­ily fired; charges have been bla­tantly con­cocted to serve Chávez’s whim. The case that forced him into ex­ile con­cerns not the crit­i­cism the caudillo com­plained of but a claim that the broad­caster, who also owns a car deal­er­ship, was guilty of “hoard­ing” his in­ven­tory — a charge so lu­di­crous that Chávez’s own at­tor­ney gen­eral had dropped it, be­fore scram­bling to re­vive it af­ter the tele­vised dik­tat.

The at­tack on Globo­vi­sion be­trays Chávez’s des­per­a­tion. Alone in Latin Amer­ica, Venezuela’s econ­omy con­tin­ues to plunge sharply down­ward; in­fla­tion is at 30 per­cent; vi­o­lent crime is soar­ing. Zu­loaga’s jour­nal­ists have de­voted much of their at­ten­tion in re­cent weeks to a scan­dal con­cern­ing the spoilage of tens of thou­sands of tons of food im­ported by the regime — at a time when short­ages of ba­sic goods are wide­spread.

Worst of all for Chávez, an elec­tion — for the Na­tional Assem­bly — is sched­uled for Sept. 26. Five years ago a fool­ish op­po­si­tion boy­cott turned the congress into a rub­ber stamp for Chávez. This year, hav­ing ham­mered to­gether a unity list, the anti-Chávez forces think they could win a ma­jor­ity of the seats. That’s cer­tainly what polls show. The out­stand­ing ques­tion is what the govern­ment will do — be­yond a district ger­ry­man­der that has al­ready been im­posed — to skew or steal the elec­tion.

Si­lenc­ing Globo­vi­sion ap­pears to be the be­gin­ning of Chávez’s an­swer. “Legally there is no way the govern­ment can close Globo­vi­sion,” Zu­loaga said. “But that doesn’t mean there won’t be an ar­bi­trary de­ci­sion. Chávez has been try­ing in any way he can to con­trol the screens of Globo­vi­sion. They want to in­spire fear more than they want to win votes, be­cause they know they have run out of money to buy votes with.”

The crack­down is not with­out risk. Globo­vi­sion, seen in more than 2 mil­lion Venezue­lan homes, is pop­u­lar. The govern­ment’s shut­down of an­other op­po­si­tion broad­caster, RCTV, in 2007 pro­voked na­tion­wide demon­stra­tions and gave birth to an op­po­si­tion stu­dent move­ment. Al­ready, the ar­rest or­der against Zu­loaga has caused con­sid­er­able in­ter­na­tional con­dem­na­tion, in­clud­ing from the U.N. rap­por­teur on free ex­pres­sion and the State Depart­ment, which called it “the lat­est ex­am­ple of the govern­ment of Venezuela’s con­tin­u­ing as­sault on the free­dom of the press.”

Zu­loaga says Globo­vi­sion will go on, “as if we are go­ing to be on the air for­ever.” He, mean­while, will hope that Chávez can­not do the same. “I re­ally be­lieve what is hap­pen­ing in Venezuela is un­sus­tain­able,” he said. “I don’t think peo­ple can ac­cept that the qual­ity of life con­tin­ues to go down the drain. How can that keep on hap­pen­ing?”

Fer­nando llano

Venezuela’s Pres­i­dent Hugo Chávez is try­ing to shut down Globo­vi­sion, a tele­vi­sion sta­tion that is the only al­ter­na­tive in the coun­try to govern­ment pro­pa­ganda.

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