Talk like a communist, walk like a democrat. That has been the paradoxical strategy pursued by Latin America's new radical left — at least until now. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez will gush effusively in the presence of Fidel Castro one moment, then just as earnestly he'll remind the world that he submits to the kind of free elections and free speech that Castro and his brother, Cuban President Raúl Castro, still forbid.
But in recent months, Chávez and his allies from Argentina to Nicaragua have taken steps that critics say make them walk too Cuban for comfort — especially when it comes to independent media, an institution critical to the region's modernization. Chávez's socialist Bolivarian Revolution recently revoked the broadcast licenses of 32 private radio stations and two television stations — it plans to take more off the air soon — and just passed a sweeping and often vague new education law outlawing media material that "produces terror in children" or "goes against the values of the Venezuelan people." (Read about why the Hollywood left loves Hugo Chávez.)
In Argentina, President Cristina Fernández is about to win a measure that will drastically reduce the number of licenses for privately owned media while ratcheting up the presence of state-owned broadcasters. The Miami-based Inter American Press Association (IAPA), while acknowledging that press freedom still exists in Bolivia, warned recently of an increasingly "dangerous climate" for media under President Evo Morales. Ecuador's national assembly is debating a bill that would give President Rafael Correa's government — which recently trumpeted the creation of "revolutionary defense committees" that opponents call Cuban-style organs for spying on citizens — control over even private media content.
In Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega wants to require all private media to employ only reporters affiliated with the journalism guild controlled by his Sandinista Party. Anyone else caught practicing the profession in Nicaragua would be considered illegal and subject to criminal punishment. (Read about Obama's challenges in Latin America.)
Are the heirs of Che Guevara discarding their democratic credentials for authoritarian fiat? Are they going Cuban in response to economic difficulties that could loosen their holds on power?
The left hardly owns the market on intimidating the press in Latin America today, as evidenced by media-averse conservatives like Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and the Honduran coup leaders who ousted President Manuel Zelaya this summer. But "President Chávez and his bloc of allies all want to consolidate power, neutralize any opposition and remain in office beyond their elected terms," says Robert Rivard, editor of the San Antonio Express-News and chair of the IAPA committee on freedom of expression, which held an emergency forum in Caracas over the weekend. "They probably can't gain the kind of grip on their respective countries without passing laws to legitimize their moves and limit independent media."
Andrés Eloy Ruiz, a humanities professor at Caracas' Central University and a spokesman for the Venezuelan education law that contains the new media rules, calls that nonsense. "
This is not a 'Cuban' law," he says. Ruiz dismisses charges that the measure, which for the first time mandates bilingual education for indigenous children but also demands classrooms based on Bolivarian principles, will impose socialist instruction in schools. "There are no private schools or media in Cuba, but we guarantee their rights here," he adds. "We're simply requiring them to be responsible. The terrorist opposition wants to sow fear in our population."
Chávez's opponents say the law's reference to irresponsible media is just code for anything he deems unacceptable — especially if it's printed or broadcast by media not aligned with his government. Last month, dozens of Chávez supporters attacked the Caracas studios of the Globovisión TV network, a loud critic of his regime, throwing tear gas and injuring three people.
Chávez, who has threatened to revoke Globovisión's license, condemned the assault and its leader was arrested. But a week later, 12 journalists passing out leaflets criticizing the education law were hospitalized after being beaten by people identified as Chavistas.
Aides to Chávez — who is up for re-election in 2012 and won a referendum this year that eliminates presidential term limits — say the broadcast licenses are being withdrawn for technical reasons. And they remind critics that Globovisión, whose anti-Chávez fare is often more politically gratuitous than journalistically professional, openly backed a 2002 coup attempt against Chávez (as did the RCTV network, whose license Chávez revoked in 2007). Chávez backers also insist the moves are meant to reduce Venezuela's traditional media monopolies and oligopolies.
Chávez does allow more media criticism than his detractors acknowledge. But he has a history of handing annulled private broadcast permits to state or state-supporter media instead of to the kind of unbiased outlets that his fiercely polarized society needs.
Argentina's increasingly unpopular Fernández, whose Peronist Party lost its majority in recent congressional elections, is also playing the anti-monopoly card — especially against her arch foe, the Clarín media conglomerate, whose directors she calls "multimedia generals" comparable to the right-wing military generals who ousted then President Isabel Perón in 1976.
Fernández's new law would allow private media only a third of all broadcast licenses while granting state and nonprofit outlets the other two-thirds, forcing giants like Clarín to sell off chunks of their media assets. The bill looks set to win final passage next week in Congress, where the Peronists are enjoying their final weeks at the helm.
Fernández, to her credit, rejects the kind of criminalization of libel and other media misbehavior that is built into Venezuela's law. But opponents call her law a desperate gambit to recoup her waning clout and win re-election in 2011 for herself or her husband and predecessor, former President Néstor Kirchner. Adrián Ventura, a columnist for the Buenos Aires daily La Nación, wrote last week that Fernandez "has started to unveil a true systematic policy of violation of freedom of expression. We are on the same road" as Venezuela.
Ecuador's Correa, who won a new four-year term this year after scoring a revamped constitution that permits presidential re-election, introduced an Orwellian-sounding bill last week that would make his government the regulator of all media content. That includes the opinions of "all who practice mass communications," said the measure's congressional sponsor, Rolando Panchana. On Sept. 18, Correa moved to shut down the TV network Teleamazonas, which he insists is conspiring to overthrow him, and which he charges broadcast a recording of him without his permission.
What worries Correa foes just as much are his new neighborhood defense committees, which they say are designed after Cuba's notorious committees for the defense of the revolution, or CDRs. Doris Soliz, Correa's Minister of Citizen Participation, denies that the Ecuadorian committees "are the CDRs of Cuba" and insists they won't "diverge from our democratic path" or promote "spying among Ecuadorians." But after his inauguration last month, Correa said he wanted to see one "in every home, in every neighborhood" to "be prepared for those who want to destabilize" his socialist revolution.
Nicaragua's erstwhile Marxist Ortega, who calls his journalist critics "the children of Goebbels" after Hitler propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels, was the subject of a special report over the summer by the New York City–based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) for his government's harassment of independent media. His bill would force every journalist to be licensed and signed up with the Sandinista-controlled Nicaraguan Journalists Association, an obscure guild to which only about 20% of reporters in the country now belong.
But even the Sandinista leadership in the National Assembly appears to be backing away from the bill. Indeed, says the CPJ report, Ortega's antimedia animosity "is unusual in the region." And given how things seem to be going in the region, that's saying a lot.
— With reporting by Uki Goñi / Buenos Aires, Stephan Küffner / Quito and Tim Rogers / Managua