Carola Chávez, who blogs at Como te iba contando (As I was telling you), posted a thoughtful critique of Venezuela’s state-run television broadcaster, Venezolana de Televisión (VTV), that I felt worthy of English translation. I know little to nothing about Carola, but my understanding – based solely on her blog posts – is that
she is a well educated, upper-middle class Caraqueño (ie. Caracan, one who lives in Caracas) who is generally supportive of Chávez and the Bolivarian revolution. If I’m correct, this would make her a somewhat rare specimen. I think it also makes her criticism worth noting. [UPDATE – Feb. 23: Carola let me know by email that she lives on Margarita Island, that there are more middle and upper-middle class Chavistas than it seems – since social pressures induce some to keep their votes secret (votan rojo calladitos) – and that her critiques of the Bolivarian process are read, noted, and generally well-received by PSUV supporters.]
The media cliché and other pressing worries
Lately I have the feeling that watching VTV is, at moments, like reading, for the thousandth time, a book of phonics, a little book directed to naïve beginners that repeats, over and over, the same perfect little phrases, all chewed up, all perfectly explained…
I don’t know how long they’re going to explain to us that Globovisión manipulates and lies, because we’ve understood that for awhile now. What many of us don’t understand is why our channel retransmits the lying channel that we decided not to watch. What, you missed what some failed Peruvian said on a channel in Miami that nobody watches? No worries, here we do the loser a favor and broadcast it, meanwhile there are so many things happening across the country that, due to time restrictions, we’re not going to broadcast for you.
Moreover, in that eagerness to take apart the mediated lies that, in the end, are only believed by those who want to believe them, we silence legitimate complaints, we relegate investigative journalism to a single side of history, where the same old bad guys are always the bad guys, and we already know which side they’re on. That’s why in the case of building fraud the scoundrels are the contractors and other private companies, but never the state institutions that spent years, maybe out of indolence, ignoring the claims of the victims and thus fertilizing the ground so that the fraud epidemic might vigorously prosper. In that eagerness to take apart lies we forget that it’s also possible to lie by omission.
We have a television where clichés flourish like a voracious vine that gropes words, concepts, and authors to the point where Galeano’s “upside down world”, out of weariness, ends up hollow.
And Vladimir Acosta no longer tells us stories that go beyond a few lines regarding “this day in history”, and of Luís Britto’s head, with luck, we see a hair once a year, and nobody even remembers the teacher Francisco Rivero that suddenly exited the airwaves “without contemplations” and without answers because not even Chávez himself knew what had gone on.
Meanwhile those who prosper are the audacious know-it-all analysts that don’t know anything, those true gurus of mediocracy that jump from the screen to the presidential press box where nobody called them, and there they encyst, always focused on the camera so that it’s known, so that you see that the showoff has arrived. So that you’re eaten up by the anxious certainty that something is going very wrong.
And if this deficient television is converted into a factory of candidates and a recycler of PSUV leaders, the anxious certainty becomes an unbearable nausea, especially when, in those crucial moments of the game, you encounter friends that, like members of the MUD [Mesa de la Unidad Democrática], believe that the revolution is made on TV like someone making a reality show.
As I mentioned in a recent post, Venezuela, Cuba, and Jamaica are jointly installing an undersea fiber-optic cable, dubbed ALBA-1, that will, according to Cuba’s Prensa Latina, “break the communications blockade imposed by the United States” and improve internet connection speeds in Cuba by a factor of 3,000. Earlier this week, the first 994 miles (1,600 kms) of cable (of a total 3,125 miles / 5,000 kms) began a trans-Atlantic voyage from Calais, France to Venezuela aboard the Ile de Gatz. The connection between Cuba and Venezuela is projected to become operational in July at the earliest. Prensa Latina lists a cost estimate of $70 million,
though it’s unclear to me if that is the total cost or just the Cuban investment. (UPDATE: The initial cost estimate, from October 2006, was $55 million: $35 million for the undersea portion and $20 million to extend the cable to the Cuban and Venezuelan networks in Havana and Caracas. I assume, therefore, that $70 million is the current estimate for total cost.)
Venezuela’s CVG Telecomunicaciones C.A. (CVG Telecom) and Cuba’s Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba S.A. (ETECSA) signed a preliminary accord for the project in October 2006, at which point Jamaica was not involved. The Venezuelan connection will be made at Camurí, near the
country’s main port of La Guaira, just north of Caracas. The cable will connect to Cuba’s national network at Siboney, roughly 9 miles (14 kms) from Santiago de Cuba on the southeastern coast.
Currently, Cuba depends on costly and relatively slow satellite service. According to the Cuban government, this is largely the result of the US State Department’s refusal to permit Cuba to connect to a fiber optic cable linking Cancún, Mexico and Miami, Florida, despite its passing only 20 miles [32 km] from Havana. In addition to increasing data and voice connection speeds, ALBA-1 is expected to reduce Cuba’s satellite costs by 25 percent.
The cable is being shipped from France as a result of the project contract having been awarded to Alcatel-Lucent. According to (my interpretation of) a document made available on WikiLeaks, Alcatel-Lucent bid on the project via their Chinese subsidiary, Alcatel Shanghai Bell (ASB; now Alcatel-Lucent Shanghai Bell / ALSB), and in conjunction with a French subsidiary, Alcatel Submarine Networks (ASN). The document indicates that ALSB’s main competitor was China’s Huawei, which created a Venezuelan subsidiary (Huawei Technologies de Venezuela) in 2001. Huawei cell phones are common in Venezuela and the company was selected by Venezuela’s dominant telecommunications corporation, Compañía Anónima Nacional de Telefonos de Venezuela (CANTV), to upgrade its national fiber-optic backbone in 2004. (CANTV was re-nationalized in 2007.)
Given the close relationship between Venezuela and China, generally, and Huawei’s significant Venezuelan footprint, why would the Venezuelan and Cuban governments select Alcatel-Lucent, a French/US transnational? (Alcatel and Lucent merged on December 1, 2006. Nonetheless, the bid document made available on WikiLeaks, copyrighted 2007, uses “Alcatel-Lucent” only once; all other instances, including the copyright, use “Alcatel”.) The answer may be that Alcatel-Lucent offered better technology without subcontracting any major elements of the project. As Alcatel Shanghai Bell put it, “ASB is the only Chinese partner able to provide turnkey submarine solution with inhouse field proven products and total independancy” [sic]. For example, Alcatel-Lucent billed its cable as resistant to 7,000 meters versus only 1,500 meters of resistance for Huawei’s line. Alcatel-Lucent also committed to in-house “dry and wet” maintenance, as well as using its own “vessel fleet” for installation. According to Alcatel-Lucent, Huawei would have had to outsource these and other operations. It might also be the case that Alcatel-Lucent simply bribed the requisite officials, as Alcatel is alleged to have done in Costa Rica, Honduras, Malaysia, and Taiwan between December 2001 and June 2006. Whether Alcatel’s claims of superiority or the SEC’s claims of bribery are true, I can’t say, but I suspect that another set of factors was more influential.
ASB claimed to be “fully compliant with Venezuela Cuba technical specifications” and listed “[f]ull repesct of Embargo regulation” [sic] among them. The document goes on to state that:
Alcatel, Alcatel Shanghai Bell, Alcatel Submarine Networks are committing to deliver the project while respecting Embargo policy
- Alcatel group and ASN are french registered companies
- Alcatel Shanghai Bell is a chinese registered company
- Specific embargo clauses will be part of the T&C’s [terms and conditions] to ensure our commitment for the whole life of the project [sic]
Of course, Huawei, being a Chinese company with an established Venezuelan subsidiary, should not have had any problems in avoiding the US embargo. Their supposed subcontractors, however, did pose some potential problems. Global Marine Systems Ltd. (GSML), for instance, was to handle the cable installation and maintenance. Based in the UK with representation in Singapore, Florida, and Boston, GSML itself may have avoided the embargo, but – according to the Alcatel-Lucent document – it was offering power-feed equipment from Spellman High Voltage Electronics Corporation, “an American company headquartered in NY state, USA [that] may cause Embargo enforcement issues in Cuba”. Alcatel-Lucent also pointed out that it would be using ASN repeaters, which have no US components or patents. Huawei, on the other hand, was said to be offering repeaters from UK-based Red Sky Telecom, which rely on a US component and make use of 41 patents registered in the US.
So, were Venezuela and Cuba “forced” to select Alcatel-Lucent due to the US embargo? To be clear, that conclusion is merely speculation based on a single leaked document. If any reader has additional information, one way or the other, please post a comment. If my speculation is correct, however, then we have an odd case in which the socialist states of Cuba and Venezuela chose a French-US transnational over a “communist” Chinese corporation precisely in order to avoid the US embargo! Such, perhaps, are the intricate paradoxes of intellectual property in a neoliberally globalized world.
UPDATE: An Executive Technical Summary, dated October 8, 2006, contains a section entitled “Analysis of the Political Environment” (“Análisis del entorno político“), that provides considerable support to my suppositions. The full text of that section follows:
The regulations imposed by the blockade against Cuba and the regulations imposed on the rest of the world through extraterritorial laws, hinder enormously negotiations with companies interested in constructing an undersea cable that connects to Cuba. If the possibility of direct aggression against the cable itself is added to that situation, it will be essential to seek all possible protection in international law.
As such the proposal is for a submarine cable constructed and operated by legally established international telecommunications operators, that should count on maximum protection from international organizations. See Appendix 1.
Furthermore for the Venezuelan State, the materialization of an international undersea cable system represents the fortification of the Nation’s communication infrastructure.
Political premises will be present when defining the geographic configuration of the undersea cable.
Las regulaciones impuestas por el bloqueo contra Cuba y las regulaciones impuestas al resto del mundo a traves de leyes extraterritoriales, dificultan enormemente las negociaciones con las empresas interesadas en construir un cable submarino que amarre en Cuba. Si a esa situación se le suma la posibilidad de agresiones directas contra el cable mismo, sera imprescindible buscar en la legislación international toda la protección posible.
Por tanto la propuesta es un cable submarino construido y operado por empresas operadoras de telecomunicaciones internacionales legalmente establecidas, que debera contar con el maximo de protección de las organizaciones internacionales. Ver Anexo 1.
Por otra parte para el Estado Venezolano, la materializaci6n de un sistema de cable submarino internacional representa el fortalecimiento de la infraestructura comunicacional de
Las premisas políticas estarán presentes al definir la configuración geográfica del cable submarino.
UPDATE (1/18): Cuba’s state-owned Juventud Rebelde newspaper reports that the cable installation is being handled by “the french-chinese company Alcatel Shanghai Bell” (“la empresa franco-china Alcatel Shanghai Bell“) without making any mention of ASB’s French-US parent company, Alcatel-Lucent.
UPDATE (8/22): Reuters is reporting that the ALBA-1 project has been delayed due to technical difficulties and is under investigation as part of a larger attempt to deal with corruption within Cuba’s state-owned telecom monopoly, ETECSA. (Thanks to ICTD.de for pointing me to this info.)
UPDATE (5/21/12): The AP has run a story with speculation regarding the reasons why the cable does not seem to be operating and is not mentioned by the Cuban government. Suspicions revolve around corruption and the threat that internet access would pose to the state.
The third of Marx’s articles concerning freedom of the press in Prussia, entitled “On the Assembly of the Estates” , was published in the Rheinische Zeitung (Rhenish Newspaper / RZ) on May 10, 1842. As the title indicates, Marx uses this entry to tie his discussion of the free press to a broader interrogation of the legitimacy of the Prussian Provincial Assemblies. His entry point for this interrogation is a speech made by a member of the knightly estate who viewed the royal edict pronounced in April of 1841, which authorized the publication of the Assemblies’ proceedings, as non-binding: “Let it be in the hands of the Provincial Assembly to make a wise use of the permission granted…. The extension of this permission could only result from inner conviction, but not from external influences.” (Marx’s emphasis). The knightly speaker goes on to suggest that the assembly should restrict the publication of its proceedings when that publication is deemed “purposeless or even harmful”.
Marx, of course, offers a different interpretation of the edict:
The province believes that the Provincial Assembly will be under its control only when the publication of the debates is no longer left to the arbitrary decision of the Assembly in its wisdom, but has become a legal necessity. We should have to call the new concession a new step backwards if it had to be interpreted in such a way that publication depends on an arbitrary decision by the Assembly of the Estates.
Marx is driving at the nature of political representation in general. He labels the knightly speaker’s position “medieval”, in that it “upholds the privilege of the estate against the rights of the province”. Once again, Marx is engaging the still coalescing ideological positions that arose, according to Wallerstein, in the 19th century. His attack on the “medieval” conservative position is launched via the medium of a liberal newspaper, though already there are hints of the more radical socialist position that he would, for better or worse, come to define. The liberal position, manifested in the US and French revolutions, viewed political representation as a right of (some of) the people. Marx points out that this conception is entirely absent from the knightly speaker’s framework:
Privileges of the estates are in no way rights of the province. On the contrary, the rights of the province cease when they become privileges of the estates. Thus the estates of the Middle Ages appropriated for themselves all the country’s constitutional rights and turned them into privileges against the country…. the rights of the Provincial Assembly are no longer rights of the province, but rights against the province… The influence of the province on its Assembly is characterised as something external to which the conviction of the Assembly of the Estates is contrasted as a delicate inner feeling…
Further below, Marx adds:
One must acknowledge the tact with which the speaker has perceived that by unabridged publication of its debates the Assembly would become a right of the province instead of a privilege of the Assembly of the Estates, that the Assembly, having become an immediate object of the public spirit, would have to decide to be a personification of the latter, and that, having been put in the light of the general consciousness, it would have to renounce its particular nature in favour of the general one.
Marx is pointing out, in other words, that the knightly speaker ignores entirely the assembly’s duty to represent the people of the province. He makes himself quite explicit on this point:
The Assembly of the Estates has a province to which the privilege of its activity extends, but the province has no estates through which it could itself be active. Of course, the province has the right, under prescribed conditions, to create these gods for itself, but as soon as they are created, it must, like a fetish worshipper, forget that these gods are its own handiwork…. We are confronted here with the peculiar spectacle, due perhaps to the nature of the Provincial Assembly, of the province having to fight not so much through its representatives as against them…. A representation which is divorced from the consciousness of those whom it represents is no representation.
While Marx seems correct in his indictment of the knightly speaker, we should note that he speaks only in broad terms of representation. As a result, he raises more questions than he answers. Nowhere does he suggest how an assembly, once selected (by whatever “prescribed conditions”), might go about personifying the “public spirit”. Why, in fact, does Marx assume that there exists anything like a singular “public spirit” or “general consciousness”? Is not the point of a representative system to adjudicate between the multiple spirits and consciousnesses that exist amongst a heterogeneous public?
To be clear, I am not saying that the Provincial Assembly of Estates as established in Prussia’s Rhine Province in 1842 was adequately enough composed to even begin carrying out this task. As Marx would argue convincingly later that year, the multiple restrictions on membership in any of the three estates, beginning with ownership of land, prohibited anything other than a partial representation of elite interests. Nonetheless, Marx seems to be appealing to a very idealistic model of representation in which the “spirit” of a people – or at least a class of people – can be intuited, articulated, and defended. This foreshadows, of course, his later socio-economic theorization of inter-class struggle, not to mention the (still ongoing) debates over the “proper” form of organization for political-economic decision-making that have hampered the socialist project.
That said, we should remember that Marx was all of 24 years old when he wrote these articles and that his primary focus was on the press, not the organizational structure of a representative democracy. We can hardly fault him for not being more precise regarding the latter issue. In fact, we should rather recognize that the close pairing of these two subjects suggests that Marx accepted, on a fundamental level, that the press plays a vital role in the determination and articulation of the “public spirit”. For example, whereas his series of articles on press freedom (especially the article under consideration here) touches on questions of political representation, his contemporaneous series of brief articles on representation (published in December 1842 under the title “On the Commission of the Estates in Prussia“) touches on issues of press freedom:
The conservative press, which continually reminds us that the view held by the critical press should be rejected as being merely an individual opinion and a distortion of reality, continually forgets that it itself is not the object in question, but only an opinion on that object, and that therefore to combat it is not always to combat that object. Every object that is made a matter for praise or blame in the press becomes a literary object, hence an object for literary discussion. What makes the press the most powerful lever for promoting culture and the intellectual education of the people is precisely the fact that it transforms the material struggle into an ideological struggle, the struggle of flesh and blood into a struggle of minds, the struggle of need, desire, empiricism into a struggle of theory, of reason, of form.
For Marx, the press ensures representation only when it is free, ie. when no outlet is deemed to have an a priori claim to validity. Only when all outlets are treated as participants in an open “struggle” for validity can a society begin to make any claims to having achieved political representation. As Marx says in the article under review here: “A truly political assembly flourishes only under the great protection of the public spirit, just as living things flourish only in the open air.” Here, at least, Marx’s equation of the “public spirit” with “open air” implies that he does not, in fact, view it as monolithic, but always a swirling mass of competing views that, at best, must play themselves out within the untidy space of a free press: “… why should precisely the free press be perfect?” Marx’s answer is that it should not. The imperfect, contested nature of the press is precisely what makes it free.
There are some other interesting points to draw out of this article. The first of these hinges on the knightly speaker’s rationalization for the desire to refrain from publishing the assembly’s proceedings. Marx quotes him at some length:
Just as it seems to him desirable that here in the Assembly there should be freedom of discussion and that an over-anxious weighing of words should be avoided, it seems to him equally necessary, in order to maintain this freedom of expression and this frankness of speech, that our words at the time should be judged only by those for whom they are intended…. From many years’ acquaintance, a good personal understanding has developed among most of us in spite of the most diverse views on various matters, a relationship which is inherited by newcomers. Precisely for that reason we are most of all able to appreciate the value of our words, and do so the more frankly as we allow ourselves to be less subject to external influences, which could only be useful if they came to us in the form of well-meaning counsel, but not in the form of a dogmatic judgment, of praise or blame, seeking to influence our personality through public opinion.
Here, the conservative appeal to tradition is laid bare: Though they affect the province as a whole, the proceedings of the assembly are intended only for those with “a good personal understanding” and only those with such an understanding should judge them. Moreover, the requisite personal understanding can only be acquired upon admittance to the assembly, which, as pointed out above, is restricted to elites. Though patently absurd in the Prussian Assembly’s case (at least to the degree that the assembly was meant to represent the people of the province), such arguments are still advanced today in relation to issues of secrecy. Witness, for example, the ongoing conroversy over the Wikileaks cables, in which the US State Department and its defenders have maintained that disclosure of the secret cables will diminish the effectiveness of its diplomatic corp by limiting its ability to communicate frankly. This line of argument, exemplified in the following extract from an article published by Foreign Policy magazine, echoes that of the knightly speaker quoted above:
[The cables] release will negatively affect the business of diplomacy conducted by America’s foreign-affairs professionals, inhibiting the candor, frank assessments, and policy recommendations that its decision-makers need. An ambassador in the field who is involved in providing the secretary of state and the president with sensitive insights in the course of delicate peace negotiations must have the confidence and trust in the system that what he is reporting in a cable will not be disclosed publicly. And embassies must be able to report candidly on the internal political situation in a given country without fear of unauthorized disclosure harming official state-to-state relations. Self-censorship by U.S. diplomats and intelligence personnel will diminish the country’s capacity to engage in foreign affairs immeasurably.
Similar arguments are advanced in favor of lawyer/client or doctor/patient privilege. Context is key, therefore, when balancing what one commentator has called, in reference to Wikileaks, “the irreconcilable values of secrecy and accountability”. In relation to a supposedly democratic representative assembly, arguing over that balance may strike us as quaint, but in the Rhine Province in 1842 the debate took place on the cutting edge of political thought. Perhaps one day we will find the Wikileaks debate just as quaint?
Finally, it’s worth noting a comment that Marx makes, seemingly in passing, regarding the medium vis-à-vis the message:
Indeed, can even daily, unabridged publication by printing be rightly called unabridged and public? Is there no abridgement in substituting the written for the spoken word, graphic systems for persons, action on paper for real action?
I’m not sure exactly what Marx intended here. Certainly there was no other medium available for feasibly conveying the proceedings of the assembling to a mass public, à la CSPAN. I suspect, therefore, that he meant to suggest that the Assembly should be open to reporters who could observe the various speakers and add context to verbatim transcripts. Such issues were hot topics at the time. For instance, the question of journalistic access to and verbatim reporting of congressional proceedings had long been the subject of considerable debate in the US and remained so in Marx’s time. Nonetheless, we should recognize that the phrasing of Marx’s questions invite philosophical considerations that would not be foreign to 20th century luminaries like Marshall McLuhan or Jacques Derrida.