QUITO, ECUADOR (Special Report) — Rita Anaya was a 25-year-old graduate student living in southern California when Venezuelan activists invited her to travel to their homeland for the first time in 2007. Her initial response, she freely acknowledges now, was one of ambivalence, but when you’re the daughter of a Chicano farmworker and a Jewish labor organizer (from Queens, no less), there’s a sort of Calvinist inevitability to these things: ”You are who you are before you’re born, player,” as Jay-Z might say. So not only did she make the trip, but she was accompanied by the whole of her immediate family — mother, father, and sister – in a kind of social-justice family vacation.
What beckoned the Anaya clan was, of course, Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution, which was, by that time, in its ninth year. And indeed, Rita found the experience exhilarating, if not downright transformative. It wasn’t just seeing the material impact of President Hugo Chavez’s socialist policies up-close – the nationalization of the oil industry, the ambitious land reform program, a steep reduction in the percentage of Venezuelans living in poverty, the sharp spike in the nation’s literacy rates or the health clinics that proliferated across the gorgeous Caribbean landscape like daffodils after a spring rain, each of which ran counter to global economic trends of that time.
All of those achievements were impressive, to be sure, but what really beguiled Rita was that in a corner of the New World that has for centuries been governed by the European settlers who own the country, the non-white workers who built it were beginning to demand their fair share with growing confidence. And in the process, they were not only improving their material reality, but raising their level of consciousness, and fulfilling Frantz Fanon’s prophetic vision of a new, post-colonial (Wo)Man.
A new media for a newly awakened people
The perfect manifestation of the Venezuelan people’s newfound faith were the grassroots community media outlets that began to sprout in the years following the 1989 Caracazo, when state security forces and military personnel roamed the streets of the capital city of Caracas, shooting indiscriminately at demonstrators protesting the government’s abrupt shift to neoliberal policies. The practice of pirating airwaves to broadcast the news from the barrios was done largely clandestinely for fear of reprisals from the state, until Chavez was first elected president in late 1998, and promptly deployed community assemblies throughout the country to rewrite the constitution.
The resulting 1999 constitution is one of the world’s most progressive and enshrines, as a human right, access to education, healthcare, housing, employment, political participation, and even the media. According to the news agency Venezuelanalysis, Article 58 of the constitution specifically states, “Communication is free and plural and must adhere to the obligations and responsibilities under the law. Every person has the right to objective, true and impartial information, without censorship…,” and goes on to assert that all communication media, public and private, must contribute to the social development of citizens. It further guarantees public access to radio, television, libraries and other information networks.
In her 2007 junket and her subsequent trips to Venezuela as an intern for the human rights organization, School of the Americas Watch, Anaya found herself enthralled with citizens’ media — its reimagining of the Fourth Estate as a kind of bulletin board for revolution, and of the journalist as a public servant, tasked with helping build a Beloved Community.
When provincial officials announced plans to privatize the local water supply, the alternative press didn’t just cover the subsequent protests; it helped organize them. Similarly, the citizens’ press led the peaceful takeover of a bullfighting ring that was converted into an arts and cultural center, and weekly radio shows allow high school students to combine hip-hop and politics. TV cameramen take great pains to photograph their subjects from below rather than from above — as the former camera angle tends to empower people and make them appear almost larger than life, while the latter is, quite literally, condescending.
Said one indigenous woman whose program was broadcast weekly on community radio:
Our children turn on the radio, and they hear their aunt, their friend’s mother, their older sister and her friends. They hear stories from the mouths of those who know the community and what we need. And they hear our language. All of this makes the children proud and eager to participate, and it gives our own community some of the power we lost to the lies of the media stations.”
It was almost as if the media collectives were riffing on the Marxist intellectual C.L.R. James’ famous supposition and asserting that if every cook can govern, surely every housemaid or gardener can report the news.
This democratization of the press was largely emblematic of a new political relationship in Venezuela, in which the unwashed passed an average of 200 handwritten messages a day to the head-of-state – “I need a bag of cement to fix my house,” or “I need a job as a teacher,” or simply “God Bless You, Hugo” – and Chavez reciprocated with the most extraordinary of gestures: he spoke back.
“When Chavez talks, it is like he is one of us,” Pablo Rosales, 53, a black cab driver told me when I visited Caracas in 2004. After returning from a state visit abroad, for example, Chavez would appear on his weekly television broadcast — Halo, Presidente — using a map and pointer.
“He will say this is where I was and it takes X number of hours to travel there by plane from Caracas,” an advisor, Maximilien Arvelaiz, told me, continuing:
For the rich and the middle class, this is all quite boring because of course they know where Spain is on the map. They think it is stupid. But poor people love this. No one has ever taken the time to explain this to them. He is the first president I’ve seen who talks to the poor and not just the high class. He includes us when he talks.”
Grassroots media helps rescue Chavez, Venezuela in 2002
But alternative media really began to blossom after throngs of protesters managed to reverse a 2002 coup attempt orchestrated by Venezuela’s oligarchs. In the hours after Chavez was abducted at gunpoint from the presidential palace known as Miraflores, Venezuela’s major broadcasters and newspapers reported that he had simply resigned, and abandoned his presidency for Cuba, where presumably, he would live in comfort as a guest of his close friend, Fidel Castro.
But, knowing that the country’s media moguls were in league with the coup-plotters (indeed, four media channels had ties to Chavez’s conservative opposition), the Afro-Caribbeans and mixed-race mestizos who lived in the slums and the countryside refused to buy it, and took to pirated radio frequencies to rally the grassroots. Within hours, the barrios of Caracas rose up in unison, and tens of thousands of Chavistas streamed into the streets to assert their displeasure, louder than the proverbial bomb.
Armed mostly with pots-and-pans and white-hot indignation, the rainbow-colored phalanx marched on the military base where Chavez was held, Fuerte Tiuna — engaging well-armed soldiers who fired on them along the route — to arrive, finally, at their destination, and demand the release of their democratically-elected leader.
Outnumbered, and outmaneuvered in the court of public opinion, the shocked oligarchs had no choice but to relent; Chavez was restored to power a mere 48 hours after he was ousted, and went on to rule the coastal country of 31 million people for another 11 years until his death from cancer in 2013.
Despite his common touch and his sometimes coarse language, Chavez, who was himself of mestizo and African ancestry, was an avid reader and an intellectual whose political ideology was steeped in his interrogation of revolutionary texts. While he admired Bolivar tremendously for his emancipation of the continent’s northern rim, he fully understood that the Great Liberator would never have managed to loosen Spain’s colonial chokehold on the continent without adding 250 Haitian soldiers, a small fleet, 4,000 muskets, 15,000 pounds of gunpowder, money, food and a printing press from Haiti, which had waged the first successful slave revolt in the Western hemisphere.
Chavez saw, moreover, that while Bolivar had indeed honored his promise to the Haitians to abolish slavery in the liberated colonies, his Republic never formally recognized Haiti, and, in fact, excluded his benefactors from the inaugural meeting of the Americas’ newly independent states in 1826, while inviting one U.S. President James Madison, who supported both imperialism and the peculiar institution of slavery.
Once he had been extricated from the clutches of his own country’s plutocrats, the savvy Chavez realized that, like Bolivar, he was singularly indebted to the black and brown Venezuelans who mobilized on his behalf, and that an independent media was a predicate for insulating the revolution from the future attacks that were inevitable. In the months following the aborted coup, his government introduced a flurry of proclamations and legislation to “darken” the state, including the Presidential Commission for the Prevention and Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in the Venezuelan Educational System — requiring, among other things, that public schools teach the contributions of Afro-Venezuelans.
After the ravaging of Hurricane Katrina through the Gulf Coast in 2005, despite a strained political relationship with the United States government, Venezuela offered aid to the region through its Venezuelan Embassy in the form of mobile hospitals, medical workers, power plants, and food. (A humiliated President George W. Bush, however, wouldn’t even entertain the offer).
In the aftermath of a catastrophic earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010, Venezuela forgave Haiti’s over $395 million dollars in foreign debt, and pledged more financial support to the Caribbean nation than did either the United States or the European Union. In 2005 Venezuela began leading initiatives in Afro-descendant communities such as New Orleans and the South Bronx, providing discounted heating oil and free energy-saving light bulbs to low-income families during the winter months. Venezuela also provided grants to community-based organizations to build self-sustaining institutions, such as worker-owned cooperatives and holistic healthcare centers for women.
When the actor Danny Glover visited in early 2004 and attended a ceremony to name an elementary school for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., televised news accounts showed Chavez pointing to his curly hair and broad nose and saying that he, like Glover, was of African heritage. Simultaneously, community media was exploding, from 13 licensed radio, television and print outlets in 2002 to 193 licensed outlets by 2007, and another 300 or so unlicensed enterprises, according to Henry Fernandes, one of the founders of Radio Crepuscular, a popular station in Caracas.
The birth of teleSUR
In 2005, Chavez announced Venezuela’s high-profile collaboration with the leftist governments of Cuba, Argentina, and Uruguay (and later Bolivia and Ecuador) to launch the state-financed, independent network teleSUR, to counter the corporate media that monopolizes information across the Americas. The network’s first director general, Uruguayan journalist Aram Aharonian, described teleSUR’s objective 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.”
Rita Anaya was working on her dissertation and teaching at a Nigerian university when she spotted an online ad calling for reporters and editors to work at teleSUR’s new English-language website in early 2014. She fired off her application immediately, and was among the first group of hires when teleSUR English began publishing from Ecuador’s capital city, Quito, in the spring of that year.
The top-down ethos of teleSUR English
But it became immediately apparent that teleSUR English couldn’t be more different from the grassroots media she’d observed in Venezuela. The citizen-journalists she saw at work on-the-ground in Venezuela were constantly out in the community, their reportage crackling with the energy, and chatter, of the streets. TeleSUR English is located in Quito’s toniest neighborhood and resembles an insurance office. Its reporters seldom venture outside, conduct phone interviews, or even discuss news stories at length.
They are, for the most part, not reporters at all, but aggregators, rewriting news stories published elsewhere, and churning out a daily requirement of five stories, all of which are reproductions, typically absent any original reporting. While the editorial structure of Venezuela’s community journalism was bottom-up, with reporters driving the coverage, top editors at teleSUR English exercised almost total control over coverage.
“What I saw in the community media was democratic, participatory and horizontal,” Rita told MintPress, “while teleSUR English was a top-down structure where we had to agree with the editorial line of the organization and we were never clear on where the line was. There was no transparency.”
About six weeks into the job, however, Rita pounced on an opening for the local correspondent’s job in the Quito office, which would afford her an opportunity to engage with the community and generate her own stories. She beat out another writer for the job — a blonde, blue-eyed American — and started her new assignment in early July of 2014.
But from the start, no one seemed invested in her success. She received no training on how to edit video, nor did she receive any instructions on what kind of stories to pursue. It was difficult to find a cameraman to accompany her and, flying blind, she typically worked 12-hour days.
After two weeks on the job, she was summoned to a video conference meeting with teleSUR’s top editors. The organization’s top editors in Caracas, and Quito — including Greg Wilpert, who is of German extraction and married to Venezuela’s ambassador to Ecuador — were unhappy with her work. Her Spanish wasn’t great, and she wasn’t as productive as they hoped. As evidence of her shortcomings, they cited a segment she’d reported on indigenous women organizing collectives and labor unions since the 2007 election of Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, whose liberal policies teleSUR supported.
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What seemed particularly nettlesome was that she mentioned, even in passing, the patriarchal attitudes that were prevalent in Ecuadorian society. Rita exploded, noting that she’d received practically no training, no instruction and very little support. “Greg, whose side are you on?” she asked, singling out Wilpert, who had hired her. “You’re not a leader; you’re a ball-less piece of shit.”
But it was all to no avail. Management had already decided to replace Rita with the blue-eyed, blond-haired woman whom she’d just beat out for the correspondents’ job three weeks earlier. Rita returned to a desk rewrite job, and then, after a month in which she uttered not a single word to any of the top editors, quit and returned to the U.S. to finish her doctoral studies.
Four years in, teleSUR English is, by any critical measure — the size of its audience, the impact of its journalism, or its strengthening of democracy — an abysmal failure, and represents nothing less than a betrayal of the Bolivarian revolution.
The cause of this failure is clear: central to Venezuela’s socialist uprising are people of color and women who are, intent on finally slaying the white-settler colonial state that reduced them to guest workers in the country of their birth, while the editorial policies and reportage of teleSUR English have, since its birth, been decided unilaterally by a battery of white men from North America who seem intent on maintaining the status quo.
The dysfunction of teleSUR English’s reverse meritocracy
By the time I arrived in Quito in the summer of 2016 to start working for teleSUR English, Wilpert had been replaced as the newsroom’s top director by Pablo Vivanco, Chilean by birth but raised in Toronto; and his top deputy, Cyril Mychalejko, who is of Ukrainian descent but raised in Philadelphia. TeleSUR English, I quickly discovered, is an inverse meritocracy, where the two least qualified journalists in the newsroom were charged with managing some of the most talented, hungry, and committed young journalists I’ve met in nearly 30 years in-and-around the media.
In interviews and conversations with more than a dozen staffers at teleSUR English, Pablo, Cyril, Greg Wilpert and most of the outlet’s top editors are consistently described in the most disparaging terms, and indeed it is hard to imagine that the hiring of such inept and morale-killing managers was an accident. Were teleSUR’s top newsroom managers hired to rewrite the history of the Bolivarian Revolution, to return the European settler to power, and to restore the white man’s unquestioned authority?
“I call it white respectability politics,” said a young black woman who once worked as an editor at teleSUR. “Why else would you have white men who are anti-black and anti-woman in charge of telling the story of the New World?”
Without access to the organization’s top decision-makers, their motives can only be a matter of speculation. What’s hard to refute, however, is that under Vivanco and Mychalejko’s leadership, the newsroom was a hive of misogyny, racism and mediocrity.
For starters, neither had worked for any mainstream journalism outlet, but had instead spent much of their careers prior to teleSUR in the NGO world. Neither one ever demonstrated any profound understanding of journalism, nor did they seem even remotely interested in developing one.
At an editors’ meeting to discuss what we could do about teleSUR English’s plummeting numbers and dwindling audience, the social media editor deconstructed our readership and concluded that we had no foundational audience and were reliant almost solely on clickbait and other gimmicks.
Her prescription echoed the broad newsroom consensus: we needed to produce more original and compelling content. Cyril was unconvinced, however, and turned to the young editor after her presentation to ask rather sharply: “How do we know our numbers aren’t down because some of our writers aren’t producing their five stories a day?”
Pablo’s delayed response was even more bewildering. A week later he addressed the presentation in an email, writing: “How do we even know that our audience wants original content?”
A primer in how to stunt, thwart, and drive away talented journalists
In my four months at teleSUR, I don’t recall a single conversation with Pablo or Cyril about the quality of our reportage or writing. Their entire raison d’etre was disciplining the writing staff, which was comprised mostly of hard-working and gifted women and people of color. Once, the staff’s best writer, a young Canadian woman whose parents had fled Pakistan, reported for her Sunday morning shift nearly three hours late. I was the only editor working that morning, and because she was never late, typically skipped lunch, and brought boundless energy and enthusiasm to her job, the thought of writing her up never crossed my mind.
“Jon,” Cyril snarled hysterically in a meeting two days later, “when they’re late you have to get in their face!”
“For what?” I shot back dismissively. “You want to lose your best writer over a one-off?”
With Pablo’s blessing, Cyril fetishized authority, no matter how illegitimate. He once came into work two hours early to run the morning huddle to crack down on one enthusiastic copy editor who would pitch three or sometimes four stories, instead of the two that Cyril demanded, in a power move that was openly mocked by nearly the entire morning shift. Another time, the normally morose Cyril was almost giddy as he wrote up two women writers who had reported to work a few minutes late because of a parade near the office.
“Are you serious?” one of them asked in bewilderment. “We were like six minutes late.”
“Yeah, I know,” Cyril said, grinning awkwardly, “but you know the rules.”
Pablo and Cyril’s mismanagement had unmistakable racial and patriarchal overtones.
The young woman who worked as the social media editor told me that Cyril and another top male editor had reprimanded her with such demonstrative hostility that she felt physically threatened. Paid op-ed articles were disproportionately commissioned to white writers, and writers of color like Matt Sedillo complained that their payments were routinely delayed for weeks, when white writers they’d befriended told them that they’d already received payment for articles published around the same time.
A young man of Mexican ancestry, who was the most fully-developed writer at teleSUR when I was there, was banished to the graveyard shift for no other reason than that he had complained about working six days a week. When teleSUR’s Venezuelan correspondent examined the country’s chronic food shortages, he did so by explaining how difficult it was for him, a white British expatriate, to find his favorite foods, rather than interviewing a Venezuelan family. A black woman from Washington, D.C., who had worked for teleSUR, told me that Pablo was dismissive of suggestions to aggressively cover the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014 until the story was too big to ignore.
“He said that Michael Brown was just another police shooting,” she recalled, “and it would soon blow over.”
The only writers spared Cyril and Pablo’s micro-aggressions were a young Arab man named Mohammed — who was the only Muslim Uncle Tom I’ve ever encountered and once publicly repeated the trope that Middle-Eastern men, including his own father, are more prone to commit violence against women than are other men — and a Canadian woman named Heather, who many of us had taken to calling “Cointelpro” because she tipped off Cyril and Pablo when a fellow writer either was late or pitched three stories instead of two at the morning huddle.
Heather was also the author of a profile of a blonde-haired Dutch woman who had joined the Marxist-influenced revolutionary militia known by its Spanish acronym, the FARC. The story was problematic for a couple of reasons.
Only weeks earlier, a young woman – who I thought was the most aggressive reporter on staff – had pitched a story about the organizing efforts of indigenous women working in Bolivia’s male-dominated mining industry. At an editor’s meeting one afternoon, Pablo had openly derided the story idea and the woman who’d proposed it, on the grounds that it might portray Bolivia’s first indigenous president — Evo Morales, a socialist and friend of the late Chavez — in a negative light.
“That’s not journalism,” I said to Pablo in the meeting. “That’s cheerleading.”
But both he and Cyril had championed Heather’s profile of the Dutch guerilla fighter, going so far as to publish it as the lead story, and allow it to remain in that position on the website for nearly twenty-four hours, when most stories remained in the top spot for no more than a few hours.
The entire staff ridiculed the profile as Orientalist dross. “There are enough n!@#$% in the FARC to make a Tarzan movie,” I said to my coworkers, paraphrasing an old joke told on the 70s television sitcom Sanford and Son, “and they find the one white girl to write a story on.”
Last straw — over and out
A week before the 2016 election, I discovered that the Content Management System (CMS) was once again on the fritz. It would not allow me to save my edits. This was a recurring problem and one that I had complained to both Cyril and Pablo about just five days earlier. The system went down at 9:21 a.m; I called tech services to report the problem at 9:37. When they told me it would be at least half an hour before the problem was fixed, I ran an errand to the bank.
I returned to find an email from Cyril reprimanding me for failing to alert CMS to the problem. I responded in an email, cc’ing Pablo:
Fuck you and your written warning, Cyril. I have been having problems with CMS since Thursday . . . both of you are well aware . . . and yet, those same problems have not only continued but gotten worse.”
Pablo wrote back that I should “stand down.” I responded:
Who is responsible for CMS not working, if not you two? It is wholly unprofessional to write someone up for something that is (a) your responsibility, and (b) I handled appropriately.
In 30 years in newsrooms, that is something else that I have never seen occur.
In my 4 months here, I have seen absolutely NO investment in producing quality journalism. But you and Pablo seem awfully invested in being the BOSS, except when something really needs to be done. Our numbers are falling through the fucking basement and the only idea that comes from you and Pablo is writing someone up.
It strikes me that you and Pablo are heavily invested in holding everyone accountable.
And yet, the only two people in the office who are not accountable are you two.”
Fearing that I would do time in an Ecuadorian jail if I saw Cyril or Pablo, I quit an hour later, and walked off the job.
Top Photo | Workers set up for the inauguration of TeleSur in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, July 24, 2005. (AP Photo/Leslie Mazoch)
Jon Jeter is a published book author and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist with more than 20 years of journalistic experience. He is a former Washington Post bureau chief and award-winning foreign correspondent on two continents, as well as a former radio and television producer for Chicago Public Media’s “This American Life.”