Venezuela's Informational Blackout
There is a dramatic and worrying informational blackout in Venezuela. The regime censored all traditional media outlets. Social media has become more deception than information. And as if these problems were not enough, most Venezuelans don't even have internet access. This informational blackout is isolating Venezuelans, condemning their chances to free their nation.
When I am abroad, I often get questions about what it entails to live in Venezuela. Journalists frequently ask me about how dramatic our humanitarian crisis really is. Students are more interested in whether the country is heading towards a political transition to democracy. And almost everyone wonders about the magnitude of our chronic shortages of goods and services. From our lack of food and medicines to our new fuel crisis.
Nevertheless, not many people ask me about another type of "shortage" disturbing the life of Venezuelans. Perhaps because they don't know its magnitude and consequences. I am referring to the scarcity of reliable information in Venezuela. In other words, to Venezuela's worrying informational blackout, which is rapidly worsening and dramatically reducing the chances to free Venezuela.
Chavez Versus the Press
Venezuela's war on information began during the presidency of Hugo Chavez. At the time, the president had a significant political adversary, RCTV. This was the oldest and most iconic free-to-air television network in Venezuela. Everyone in the country watched it. RCTV had not only Venezuela's most popular soap operas but also its most talked-about political shows. And to the misfortune of the president, RCTV was strongly opposed to Chavez's socialism.
Chavez knew that RCTV was a major political obstacle to his agenda. Therefore, in 2007, he found a way to take RCTV off-air. Chavez claimed that the channel was involved in a failed coup that took place in 2002, and because of it, he stopped renewing RCTV's broadcasting license. This was a decision that Venezuelans universally rejected, and hence, one that they protested vigorously. However, it was a decision that Venezuelans could not reverse. The closure of RCTV became the first of many violations to the freedom of speech of Venezuelans.
In the subsequent years, Chavez used a similar excuse to take off-air other channels as well as dozens of radio stations. Moreover, he started using the economic power of the government to censor media outlets. For instance, Chavez used to threaten businesses that had publicity in magazines critical of the government. He did this to stop them from publicizing in these magazines, which would lead them to bankruptcy.
Similarly, the Venezuelan government has had tight currency controls since 2003. Hence, when the president was not fond of a newspaper. He often blocked the newspaper's access to foreign currency so it could not import paper for its printing and distribution. Chavez also systematically threatened domestic journalists and received foreign reporters with hostility. These were all tactics meant to silence the free press. Tactics that ultimately led to the shutdown of virtually all independent voices covering the politics of Venezuela.
The Rise and Fall of Online Information
Naturally, because of the censorship of traditional media outlets, Venezuelans have been using social media for political purposes for years. Even sooner than in the United States. A country that truly saw the political rise of social media with the 2016 election of Donald Trump. In Venezuela, the opposition was already heavily dependent on social media in the early 2010s.
This became evident during the presidential campaign of 2012 between President Chavez and Henrique Capriles, the opposition candidate. While Chavez appeared on national television for more than 6 hours a day on average, Capriles could barely appear for a few minutes. This motivated the opposition to focus their strategy on social media, which turned out to be quite successful. Likewise, social media was the key integrating factor behind the nationwide protests that Venezuela experienced in 2014. Similar to other protests that took place in that year, such as the "Umbrella Revolution" in Hong Kong and the "Euromaidan Revolution" in Ukraine.
Unfortunately, long gone are the days when social media was rightfully informing Venezuelans. In the last couple of years, the regime has been successful at spreading misinformation in social media, especially on twitter. For instance, the regime usually misleads people by spreading rumors about supposedly ongoing military interventions. They also spread smear campaigns of virtually all opposition candidates. And overall, they tend to use social media to distract the public opinion from what is real to what it is wishful thinking.
If you combine these rumors with the lack of traditional journalism in Venezuela, the result is widespread misinformation. Because of it, most Venezuelans are not correctly separating reliable news from social media gossip. This is exacerbated by the complexity of the Venezuelan political process, which has included sham elections, parallel institutions, foreign sanctions, and other complex political, economic, and diplomatic affairs.
Finally, there is another problem. Currently, most Venezuelans do not even have internet access in the first place. This is because of the humanitarian crisis of Venezuela. Since most people not only cannot afford a smartphone or a laptop but also live in areas without electricity or signal for their phones. Besides, Venezuela has one of the worst internet connections in the world. According to Speedtest data, the mobile broadband speed of Venezuela ranks 139 in the world, while its fixed broadband speed ranks 175 globally. Therefore, between poor connectivity and economic barriers, the reality is that an overwhelming majority of Venezuelans are completely isolated from the news around them.
I had four years without coming to Venezuela. Since then, many things have changed. From the economic possibilities of most families to how Venezuelans imagine their future. Among these changes, it really amazed me the informational blackout of my country. There is no traditional journalism. Social media is increasingly becoming a source of deception instead of information. And most people do not even have the means to access the online world.
This is particularly dramatic in the political sense. People are severely misinformed, as they are increasingly relying on the regime's official media outlets. This became evident to me with the COVID-19 crisis. People only knew what was officially said by the regime. From conspiracy theories about the United States spreading the virus in "antiimperialist" nations. To the necessity of keeping the total quarantine until a vaccine was created. This allowed the regime to increase its repression and vigilance over the Venezuelan people.
Similarly, there is no politics without informed citizens. Currently, a large number of Venezuelans are unaware of the efforts of the opposition, the United States, and other political actors. For example, most people do not follow the work of the interim government of Juan Guaido. They also do not understand the nature and real effects of the United States' financial sanctions upon the Maduro regime. Overall, most Venezuelans are not only unaware but also unorganized and unvested in matters of political life.
This is radically different from the Venezuela I left four years ago. At the time, people were continually discussing and analyzing the route our country was taking. When people were doing long lines to buy food, they were talking politics. In coffee shops, politics was a frequent topic of conversation among friends. At universities, students were organizing their student movements. Today, none of these is longer true. And no one is happier with this informational blackout than Nicolas Maduro.
Ultimately, the negative consequences of this situation will even go beyond our current political conflict. Years of informational blackout will have long-lasting effects on the quality of our public discourse. It will make us even more vulnerable to populism and demagoguery. Therefore, a real effort to rebuild Venezuela ought to focus on addressing this issue. We need to reinvigorate the access and appetite for reliable information among Venezuelans, an essential task if we want to lay down the foundations for a robust democracy in our country. A democracy based upon a well-informed, intellectually acute, and politically thoughtful citizenry.
Jorge Jraissati is the President of the Venezuelan Alliance. Graduated at the Wilkes Honors College, Jorge is an economist, political leader, and a fellow at the Abigail Adams Institute. Jorge has been invited as a guest lecturer to over 20 universities, such as Harvard, NYU, and Cambridge.