With national elections looming, the health of Venezuelan democracy may depend on the freedom of opinion in the media—including the political cartoonists.
A year ago, Rayma Suprani found herself facing up to 30 years imprisonment for threatening to undermine the Venezuelan government, and labelled one of a group of terrorists whose subversive activity was harmful to the future of the nation. Yet Suprani had not detonated a single bomb, nor was she a member of any militant group. Rather, Suprani’s alleged terrorism sprang from her work as a satirical cartoonist.
Absurd as it is, Suprani’s story is becoming more and more common among Venezuelan journalists. Harmless though they may seem, Suprani’s images are representative of what the Venezuelan government most fears—and what its country most needs—in the run-up to the April 14 elections. Hastily thrown together, they come on the heels of the death of the much beloved (and much maligned) leader, Hugo Chavez. They pit Nicolas Maduro, appointed as Chavez’s successor and the heir apparent to the presidency, against Henrique Capriles. The two candidates stand in stark contrast to one another and represent a bitter divide in the country’s politics. The current climate has served to make this election heated, polarized and—in a disturbing recent trend—dangerous.
Despite what some who oppose the current government may claim, up until now Venezuela’s political system has been a democracy that has been recognized for operating free and fair elections. Chavez’s own victory in 2012, while controversial, was accepted as legitimate. Yet today, despite its recent success, the government has displayed an increasing intolerance to criticism. Suprani is just one example of the journalists who have been threatened for producing work critical of the government in the last few years. In 2012, news outlets published reports on the levels of self-censorship in the country’s media in response to government pressure. Some journalists, such as Milagros Socorro, Mari Montes, Mariela Celis and Suprani herself, have bucked the trend and headed to social media to denounce their aggressors, or filed police reports against the programs and people that persecute them.
However, these individual protests are largely ineffectual without constitutional backing and the police remain uninvolved in prosecuting cases that prove inconvenient for the regime. In this way, while it falls short of outright violent persecution, the government has employed methods which limit press freedom through fear-mongering and embarrassment. It hinders the discourse essential to a healthy political atmosphere and an informed electorate. “Venezuela is not Iran,” explained Suprani in a 2012 interview, “People are not being hanged in public squares–but any Venezuelan that leaves his or her house in the morning runs the risk of not coming back because crime levels are so high…the government doesn’t murder openly, but it has a political reach that protects those responsible from facing justice.”
Indeed, even ordinary citizens are starting to feel the infringement of a paranoid ruling party on freedom of expression. On March 14, Lourdes Alicia Ortega Pérez was imprisoned for tweeting that posthumously, Chavez looked like a ‘wax doll.’ Soon after, the hashtag #tuitdeestablizador (subversive tweet) emerged, mocking the overreaction of the government. (To showcase how ridiculous it was, posts appeared such as ‘There’s no hot water in my house #subversivetweet’ or ‘Capriles is hot #subversive tweet’.)
To state that this would end with the election of a different party would be ingenuous. The leading opposition party—with significantly less leverage and therefore less opportunity to do so—has also been accused of dubious practices. Following the last election, there was a disturbance when the party was accused of retaining voter records in order to discriminate against those citizens who had voted against them. Since Chavez’s death, Capriles, the opposition leader, has been accused of baseless attacks on Maduro and speeches that aim to incite hatred against the Chavistas in his attempt to garner votes. The problem appears not to be within the current party itself, so much as in an increasing acceptance of open hostility within Venezuela’s political culture.
In the past weeks, the country has seen inflamed and accusatory rhetoric, a proliferation of blatant propaganda and a violent stand-off when supporters of the two parties clashed in a rally. The government’s use of violent threat and its intolerance to differing opinions is spilling over into an already-impassioned electorate, which is a dangerous combination. Venezuela’s politics are in bad shape; deeply divided and increasingly untrustworthy, now more than ever, the country needs free and fair discourse in order to progress.
In the current political atmosphere, is most vital to remember that what stands at stake is not which candidate emerges victorious, but the safety and wellbeing of the citizens for which they stand. With its valuable natural resources and strong links to the surrounding region, Venezuela has much potential. But until the violence and culture of fear abate, it seems unlikely to fulfil it. Before anything else, the country should focus on healing a broken political psychology, largely through an active effort to stem censorship and encourage constructive debate—including political satire—among its citizens. As Suprani states, in today’s Venezuela “having opinions has become dangerous and being a cartoonist has become a dangerous job. When that happens, it is no longer a democracy.”
Originally published at Women’s Media Centre, 10/04/2013
Featured image by Rayma Suprani.