It would have been Simón Bolívar’s 222nd birthday. On June 24, 2005, a new television station began broadcasting four hours of original programming. By that October, it was a twenty-four-hour news channel in service of the Bolivarian project.
To Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, Bolivarianism meant Latin American integration, anti-imperialism, and what he called “twenty-first-century” socialism. The new channel, teleSUR, was a collaborative effort of several left-wing governments: early on, Venezuela, Cuba, Argentina, and Uruguay. (Ecuador and Bolivia joined later, while Argentina left in 2016 after electing a right-wing government.) Uruguayan journalist Aram Aharonian, teleSUR’s first director general, has described the channel’s initial goal as “to see ourselves as we truly were. . . . We were presented through a colonial mentality as blond and tall and European, and some of us are, but we’re also short, dark, Zambo, Indian. We needed to shake off our inferiority complex and tell our own stories.”
In Aharonian’s vision, teleSUR would function as a kind of news and information source that would accompany the new progressive governments’ efforts at social inclusion. “Our North is the South,” went the channel’s slogan, embracing a reordering of priorities and values, not just geography.
The problem that teleSUR identified was a real one. Across the region, large television and media conglomerates nearly all had ties to the Right. CNN waved the flag for war after war, and even the more critical BBC still represented Northern perspectives. The two Latin American behemoths, Brazil’s TV Globo and Mexico’s Televisa, had respectively been tightly knit parts of Brazil’s dictatorship and Mexico’s semi-authoritarian system. Even as politics in those countries changed, the corporations remained close to old economic and political elites. The same pattern held in other countries — in Venezuela, four media channels were aligned closely with the political opposition to Chávez, cheerleading the failed coup against him in 2002 and assuming a strident oppositional profile in the years that followed.
When teleSUR launched, it asserted that it would provide a public service, not propaganda. In addition to news programming, it ran documentaries, films, and cultural programs showcasing the diversity of the region. Early ads were essentially public service announcements for social programs in Venezuela and Cuba. By 2007, it had ten bureaus in the Americas, giving it a presence probably unmatched by any international media organization.
In all of this, it was following a well-worn path of cultural diplomacy. Supporters and critics alike recognized it in those terms. Former guerrilla and Chávez critic Teodoro Petkoff described it as part of Chávez’s efforts to become a “Caribbean Gramsci” occupying the “intermediary bodies in society.”
In late 2006, Chávez escalated his conflict with the opposition media, declining to renew the terrestrial broadcast license for a popular channel, RCTV. In an environment of “media war,” it became more difficult for teleSUR to operate autonomously. Aharonian was forced out in late December 2008, embittered, and many other original staffers departed. For teleSUR’s new president, Andrés Izarra (who has three times served as Venezuela’s minister of information), Aharonian says, “it wasn’t about promoting a Latin American identity and doing something different with television, but serving Chávez’s domestic agenda and being a political instrument. . . . The same garbage as the enemy but from the other side.” Izarra, for his part, says he is trying to “construct a communications and information hegemony that will allow an ideological and cultural battle to promote socialism.”
But is the cause of socialism served well by this approach? The channel has unquestionably become more propagandistic over the years. Critical voices used to appear as part of the conversation — set up, of course, against opponents with proper Bolivarian views — but they have all but disappeared. Anthropologist Robert Samet told me that he is concerned that Venezuela’s state media have gradually moved from being “watchdogs” to become “lapdogs” for the state.
TeleSUR now frequently reproduces the conspiratorial thinking of some Venezuelan leaders. It covers crime extensively in places like Mexico and the United States — but not in Venezuela. The country’s homicide rate is now four times that of Mexico.
Sociologist Hugo Pérez Hernáiz believes that teleSUR is “a totally useless source of information about almost anything in the world except for what the Venezuelan government is thinking.” Historian Alejandro Velasco writes that urban Chavistas he knows rely on teleSUR not for information
but as a way of reinforcing ways of feeling. “Watching teleSUR and VTV [Venezuelan state television] are cognizant, political acts — like going to a rally.”
But with Chávez gone and the Bolivarian Revolution’s future uncertain, even many Chavistas feel that the project has become too disconnected from reality
and needs renewal. The problems of privately owned media are clear. Building a left media system that is informative, probing, and analytically sophisticated remains a vital task. But without safeguards of editorial independence from the state, the pressure to avoid challenging sponsors is likely to hinder the mission of journalism, especially in situations in which criticism is conflated with opposition.
TeleSUR can do important work that few others can, but it can’t analyze its own patrons. The task of criticizing the Left cannot be abandoned to the Right, even in moments of crisis — perhaps especially in moments of crisis.