Take access to the media. Three minutes per day per broadcast outlet. That’s how much advertising each candidate is allowed in Venezuela in the weeks leading up to a presidential election. That’s six thirty-second spots, no more. To long suffering TV watchers in U.S. battleground states, that must sound like paradise. There’s a catch, though. While each candidate’s campaign is allowed no more than 3-minutes, the government can run as many “institutional” ads as it wants to promote its work. And in Chávez-era Venezuela, such ads are generally indistinguishable from the official campaign ads, down to using designed-to-look-alike logos.
But there’s more. Under decades-old legislation designed to allow the government to communicate during a national emergency, the president is legally empowered to comandeer the airwaves on every TV channel and every radio broadcaster simultaneously, whenever he wants, for as long as he wants. The government doesn’t have to pay for these so-called “cadena” (chain) broadcasts, or even give TV stations any advanced notice that one is coming and, as you probably guessed, cadenas are also often top-heavy with campaign themes. Such cadenas have taken up an average of 30 minutes per day since the official launch of the campaign on July 1.
And that’s not all. In the last six years, the Chávez government has made it an explicit goal to achieve “communication and information hegemony”, at once multiplying the number of state-owned media outlets and cracking down on critical broadcasters. Much of the state media is relentlessly propagandistic in the Soviet mold—just hour after hour of government boosterism and harsh, vitriolic attacks on the opposition. The remaining independent broadcasters, by contrast, are largely neutered: stepping on any of several never-clearly-spelled-out red lines can bring on heavy fines, serious harrassment or even a station closure. And so private news broadcasts are as anodyne as public ones are propagandistic.