Venezuela’s Analog Internet

CARACAS, Venezuela—Luis Paiva, a 62-year-old security guard from the poor Caracas neighborhood of Caricuao, says that for almost 40 years his job and family life kept him so busy that he didn’t bother to open a newspaper. A former member of Venezuela’s Youth Communist League, Paiva all but stopped reading the news in the early 1960s when he hung up his activist spurs.

When a military coup d’etat ousted President Hugo Chávez during the early hours of April 12, 2002, Paiva suddenly needed to know what was happening—but he didn’t know where to turn, because the country’s private media was openly allied with the opposition.

During the 48 hours of the coup, Paiva got a blow-by-blow from printouts of alternative Web publications that provided the information being filtered out by the opposition media. Even after loyalist troops restored President Chávez to power on April 14, Paiva wanted to keep reading the alternative online press, but he had no computer at his house or at his job.

“My friends and neighbors started passing me photocopies of articles that came off the Internet,” he says. “Before I knew it, I was exchanging copies of the news with people all over the place.”

Paiva is now part of  a network of thousands of Venezuelans from poor neighborhoods who are taking the Internet into the slums the old-fashioned way—on paper. With Venezuela’s media openly allied with opposition political parties and rampant poverty making the Internet inaccessible for most, Chávez’s stalwart admirers among the lower classes are turning the information revolution on its head—turning digital content analog for mass consumption.

The process usually starts with a Web-savvy individual printing out a series of articles at their workplace. After surreptitiously making hundreds of copies, they spirit them out of the office and into the hands of their neighbors in the poor barrios. The articles change hands dozens of times as they are passed from one neighbor to another, forming the basis of political debate or evening conversation, which in Venezuela these days tends to be the same thing.

This network goes beyond just friends and neighbors: Buy a loaf of bread outside the Zoologico metro station in Caracas, and it may come wrapped in an editorial lauding the government’s literacy program or a series of jokes about opposition leaders. Community radio stations, which have boomed under Chávez, read online articles over the air.

“I read some pro-Chávez publications, but there are a lot of articles I wouldn’t see if I didn’t have these printouts,” says Elver Cisneros, a pro-Chávez activist in southeastern Caracas, as he pores over a stack of printouts in his living room. “I don’t have the Internet in my house, and I don’t trust the television or private media.”

The open bias of Venezuela’s media spurred the development of an entire online community of Chávez supporters. The most popular and influential has been the Popular Revolutionary Assembly, an openly pro-Chávez site that provides everything from state news wire stories to articles written by volunteer community reporters. Also prominent are antiescualidos.com, dedicated to bashing Chávez’s critics, and the Bolivarian Network, which promotes Chávez’s social achievements. The information on these sites is often no more ethical than the private media news it replaces, frequently reprinting rumors and gossip with little regard for accuracy.

“We never intended to be a news site,” said Rene Baralt, a former coordinator of the Popular Revolutionary Assembly site. “The idea is that the page reflects what people are talking about in the streets. That’s what people in poor communities are actually interested in hearing about.”

On several occasions the site has posted digitalized recordings of wire-tapped phone conversations between opposition leaders—presumably passed to them by sympathetic intelligence agents—meant to embarrass the opposition. And like the alternative press articles, these conversations are distributed through poor neighborhoods in the form of cassette recordings, played in patios and backyards around Caracas to audiences of giggling chavistas.

The abuse of wiretapping, amusing as it is for pro-Chávez audiences, is only a hint of the underhanded tactics used by the government. People have been fired for signing the recall referendum. Judges have been dismissed for ruling against the administration. State resources are routinely used for partisan purposes. Chávez’s brazen disrespect for the independence of state institutions belies his frequent assertions that Venezuela is the most democratic country on the planet.

Still, it’s no surprise that these pro-Chávez Web sites are so popular—Venezuela’s private media openly promote the opposition cause, insisting that objectivity is impossible in the face of Chávez’s advancing authoritarianism. And given the lack of political leadership in the opposition, the media have become the backbone of the anti-Chávez movement.

During the coup of 2002, TV stations played a crucial role in convincing the public that Chávez had ordered his supporters to fire on demonstrators—accusations that paved the way for his brief ouster. When an opposition-led strike launched in December of 2002 nearly shuttered the all-important oil industry for nearly two months, TV stations that were covering the news actually joined the strike by suspending broadcast of advertisements and running non-stop anti-Chávez propaganda.

“President Chávez is working hard to make sure people get the access they need to the Internet,” says Elida Polanco, a pro-Chávez community activist who writes for various Web sites. “But in the meantime, we have to keep passing out photocopies to make sure people can read what they want.”