Thursday, January 22, 2015

Venezuela: Propaganda wars? Cheap oil a costly proposition for free expression in Venezuela

Erin Woycik 21 January 2015 

In some parts of the world, the average citizen notices changes in the price of oil only when they visit a gas station. In Venezuela, the country with the world's largest oil reserves, people are experiencing the recent dramatic drop in oil prices every time they try to buy groceries. Long lines and empty shelves have been some of the results of the commodity's falling price, which has compounded longstanding economic problems in Venezuela; problems, according to the government, that are the result of “economic warfare” and “media hype”.

President Nicolás Maduro's administration has often blamed external forces for the country's economic and social problems. Notions of plots “to destabilize the country” involving unnamed U.S. intelligence agencies have become commonplace in official speeches, where government figures hide behind rhetoric instead of being transparent about the administration's shortcomings. When the media reports on problems which can be attributed to actions taken by the government, officials call the media liars. Reporters covering the current economic story are finding themselves in hot water.

In the last year, basic goods such as corn meal and toilet paper have disappeared from shelves, and people have spent entire days going store to store checking items off their lists. What is different now is that the shortages are more extreme, meaning that people can wait in line for hours without knowing what will be available once they get inside the store.

Historically, there have been shortages at the beginning of the new year, due in part to the fact that Venezuelans tend to be paid more at the end of the year and spend this money quickly, meaning some items sell out. Government supporters have used this to try to explain the shortages. However, as Antulio Rosales, a political economist working on Venezuela at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, explains it, the shortages are more acute this year because Venezuela had to use foreign currency funds to pay off debts at the end of 2014, which exacerbated the lack of foreign currency available for businesses to import materials and finished products.

Cracks in the system have been appearing for years, but with the current price of oil at below US$50 a barrel, and the fact that Venezuela depends on it for 95% of its export revenue, the crisis is escalating. Maduro's approval rating has fallen to 22%, and it appears that controlling the message – and the messengers - has become more important than ever. This effort to manage information and critical expression is a defining feature of a “democratator”, a term coined by Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Simon applied this term to former President Chávez, and it is safe to say that Maduro is following his example.

In recent weeks, photographers and citizen journalists have landed in trouble for taking and tweeting pictures of empty grocery store shelves and people in never-ending lines. Venezuelans have started using the hashtag #AnaquelesVaciosEnVenezuela (empty shelves in Venezuela) on social media to share their frustration. According to Instituto Prensa y Socieded (IPYS-Venezuela), on 2 January, an employee from the Excelsior Gama supermarket chain in the state of Miranda complained to police about citizen journalist Oliver Laufer who was photographing empty refrigerators. The police did not detain Laufer, but the employee threatened him, saying, “If you take another photo, I will get them to imprison you.” The supermarket chain has said they have a policy about people taking photos inside their stores, but Laufer did not buy that explanation. When he tweeted about the incident, he wrote, “Censorship is the new rule”. Laufer also solicited photos of grocery store shelves in other countries, in an effort to show that people were free to document and share what was happening in their home countries. 

IFEX member Espacio Público reported that on 5 January, NTN24 photojournalist Rafael Hernández was assaulted by a store employee for filming a video from the street. In the past few weeks, IPYS-Venezuela has recorded numerous incidents involving the media and coverage of shortages, including one reporter who was even threatened via twitter for his work.

Some supermarkets have instituted rules dictating when people can buy certain items, based on the last digit of national ID numbers. Looting has been reported at some stores. Many have beefed up security as tensions run high amongst people waiting in line. Here is what happened when a shipment of soap arrived in one store: 

Officials are justifying the problems as the outcome of “economic warfare”, blaming some groups for betting against the nation's stability. A campaign on state TV accuses citizens of inciting shortages by panic buying and calls on them to show confidence in their country.

Despite the obvious problems, the government has not backed down. When President Maduro returned to the country on 17 January after a two-week trip to drum up support from allies in other oil-rich countries, the streets in downtown Caracas were lined with banners showing Maduro with various world leaders under the heading “successful tour”. It would appear that the state propaganda machine is at work, as the trip actually had mixed results. Members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), such as Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, have refused to reduce production to stop the price from falling, while Russia and China have agreed to invest in oil and energy projects in Venezuela.

News outlet NTN24 reported that a pro-government group called the Red de Defensoras y Defensores de la Seguridad y Soberanía Alimentaria (Food Security and Sovereignty Defenders Network) had been posting notices on supermarket doors about the shortages. The line at the bottom of the poster reads, “Do not be fooled. The Coup supporters on the right want to play with your needs, then say it is the Government.” This is a tweet from their correspondent Rafael Hernández: 

In February and March 2014, protests took hold of Venezuela, and although some of the anger was directed at the economic problems, it was set off by students protesting the rape of a classmate and later broadened into issues of general insecurity. Just this week, it appears that Venezuelans' frustration with the economy will be moving from queues to the streets. On 19 January Hannah Dreier, an AP correspondent in Venezuela, tweeted that dueling protests were coming: 

While the dust has barely settled on last year's protests, Venezuela is on the verge of a tipping point once again. 

Erin Woycik is the IFEX Section Editor for the Americas.