The Internet war is heating up in Venezuela. Just weeks after its launch, President Chavez' Twitter account is the country's most popular with 240,000 followers. But his opponents aren't just standing by idly.
Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez has never been shy to speak his mind
The Internet war erupted against a background of severe economic problems in Venezuela. Inflation has hit an annual rate of 30 percent and the country's currency, the Venezuelan Bolivar, lost almost half its value against the US dollar. Opponents argue that Hugo Chavez is mismanaging the economy and cracking down on critics. Supporters of the president say right-wing businessmen are engaging in illegal currency speculation, and using the media to spread propaganda.
Those sharp differences are reflected in how both sides use the Internet. So far even Chavez supporters concede that the opposition has produced more sophisticated websites. For example, El Chiguirre Bipolar, named after an indigenous Venezuelan rodent, regularly satirizes President Chavez.
In one animated episode, an actor impersonating the president instructs his followers. "One of the most important duties of executive power," intones the impersonator, "is writing letters to Hollywood celebrities." The impersonator then writes a letter to actor Danny Glover suggesting that they collaborate on a new film called "Harry Potter and the Final Demise of Capitalism."
Oswaldo Graziani, co-founder of El Chiguirre, says opposition Internet sites are popular, but all media face many government restrictions. In 2007 the government refused to renew the broadcast license of RCTV, a major opposition network. Graziani says the government also uses tax authorities to investigate opposition media.
"Private businesses are afraid, ironically, about money in this socialistic country," says Graziani with a chuckle.
Expanding Internet access
But supporters of President Chavez sharply disagree. They point out that Venezuelans have access to all domestic and international websites. And the government has rapidly expanded Internet access to workers and the poor.
After his success with Twitter, Chavez plans to launch a new blog as well
In the poor Caracas neighborhood of La Vega, the disadvantaged wait in line for discounted bus passes. Right next door sits a government-funded InfoCenter, with seven brand new computers that offer free, high-speed Internet access.
Alberto Avila, who manages this InfoCenter, says the government has opened 600 such centers around the country, with plans to build 200 more. He calls himself a "facilitator" rather than a manager, because he wants to train poor residents to use the Internet for their own needs.
"It's the vision of the community to have the Internet," says Avila. "The most important thing is that the tools are in the hands of the people."
Chavez supporters argue that the private media in Venezuela represent the interests of the rich who lost power in democratic elections. They cry "free speech" while regularly mis-reporting the news, charges Eva Golinger, editor of the government-owned newspaper El Correo de Orinoco International.
"The two main dailies, El Universal and El Nacional, are harshly opposition and critical," she notes. "They're not censored."
Neither are radio and TV stations, she says. Through government owned Internet sites, TV and Radio stations, supporters of Chavez are trying to "promote alternative spaces and raise consciousness so people choose what they want to watch and read."
Such sentiments anger opposition media owners like those at Radio Caracas, one of the country's most outspoken opposition radio and Internet networks. They see government repression coming from many angles. Managers worry about government proposals to relocate the internet hubs of media organizations from the US to Venezuela.
Hubs control the servers, which carry content to readers. Parliament is currently debating whether to relocate all the country's hubs inside Venezuela.
"If you put, like they do in Iran or Cuba, all the hubs inside the territory of Venezuela, the government will have control of the content," says Jaime Nestares, general manager of Radio Caracas.
Venezuelan journalists protested against the removal of RCTV in 2007
But newspaper editor Golinger says that's an invented argument. Today the hubs reside in the US, which she argues, could enable the United States to interfere with Venezuelan Internet traffic if it wants to. She says relocating the hubs is part of asserting "technological and communications sovereignty."
"If we had our own Internet servers," she says, "I would guarantee that the Internet here would be free."
Whether or not the Venezuelan government eventually provides Internet free of charge to everyone, the debate over editorial freedom on the Internet will likely continue. Meanwhile President Chavez has proven to be the most popular Twitter user in the country. Even members of the opposition have signed up.
Author: Reese Erlich
Editor: Michael Knigge