Friday, July 29, 2005

MACK VS. VENEZUELA

By William Fisher

As some Latin American analysts complain that Washington has declared "electronic war" on Venezuela with a plan to target the country for special radio and television broadcasts, it remains uncertain whether the project will ever get off the ground.

If approved by a joint congressional committee, the broadcasts would be financed by the U.S. government and implemented through the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the quasi-independent corporation established to carry out Washington's "public diplomacy" broadcasting programs worldwide.

"The BBG may want to start numerous new broadcast services, or revive VOA (Voice of America) services that have been canceled," said Adam Clayton Powell III, a senior fellow at the University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy.

"But where is the money? Until the U.S. is prepared to commit resources to produce, transmit and market new services, this is moot," he said.

The broadcasts were approved by the U.S. House of Representatives in an amendment to the Foreign Relations Authorization Act of 2005, introduced by Republican Congressman Connie Mack of Florida.

The U.S. Senate has already passed its own version of the act that does not include the Mack proposal. The House and Senate must now meet in a joint conference committee to reconcile the two versions of the legislation before it goes to the president for signature.

It is unclear whether the Mack Amendment will survive the negotiations in the conference committee. The congressman was not available for comment.

The move came as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez launched his own television network, called Telesur. According to officials, the station's goal is to promote South American regional integration with newscasts, films, documentaries and music by Latin American and Caribbean producers, and to provide a counterweight to existing programming from the United States.

Mack, a member of the International Relations Committee, has been an outspoken critic of Chavez and what he calls "his ongoing, radical shift toward socialism and the elimination of freedom for the Venezuelan people."

The congressman has charged that Telesur is "patterned after Al-Jazeera" and will "spread (Chavez's) anti-American, anti-freedom rhetoric".

Powell said there was another alternative to creating special broadcasts to counter Telesur.

"For a far lower investment, the U.S. government could make certain that its views are represented on Telesur by making certain government spokesmen are available for Telesur interview and discussion opportunities," he said.

Alvin Snyder, also a senior fellow at the Centre on Public Diplomacy, injected another note of caution.

He said, "Telesur is a pan-Latin American channel. To counter its influence, a U.S. channel should be targeted to all of Latin America, not solely to Venezuela."

"A sound business plan needs to be developed including due diligence stating the objectives of the enterprise with specifics on how those objectives will be achieved. A satellite TV channel must have a vibrant Internet presence, with additional distribution through the growing technologies such as mobile video cell phones and podcasting."

Mack has proposed a three-point plan regarding Venezuela. It involves "the creation of institutions that will foster a free press, the freedom of speech and religion, and free and fair elections for Venezuela; a Venezuelan Security Zone that will isolate Chavez and limit his ability to destabilize Latin America; and promotion of economic development in Venezuela through free markets, privatization, and other means that will create lasting prosperity and opportunity for all Venezuelans."

The U.S. House has earmarked nine million dollars for 2006 and another nine million for 2007 to support opposition political parties, media and civil society organizations in Venezuela.

Meanwhile, the Venezuelan Congress was quick to approve a resolution opposing the House decision on broadcasting. The Venezuelan resolution passed with the votes of the ruling alliance, which holds a majority, and the center-left Movement to Socialism, an opposition party.

Telesur, a pan-Latin American station, is a Venezuelan government initiative undertaken in association with Argentina, Cuba and Uruguay. The governments of Argentina, Cuba and Uruguay have not commented on the bill passed by the U.S. House.

On Wednesday, Andrés Izarra, Venezuela's information minister, resigned his post to assume the presidency of Telesur, saying that he wanted to assure the public that the new continent-wide television channel would not suffer from any conflicts of interest.
.
Telesur drew the wrath of the U.S. even before it went on the air last Sunday. It began broadcasting from Caracas on Jul. 24, the anniversary of the birth of South American independence leader, Simón Bolívar.

Pres. Chávez has called the Mack amendment "a preposterous imperialist idea that should not surprise us because we know what the U.S. government is capable of," and vowed to "take measures to neutralize the attempt."

Venezuelan critics of the Mack initiative contend that Washington is trying to repeat the failed initiatives of Radio and TV Martí, the U.S.-government funded stations created to broadcast programming and news aimed against the Cuban government.

Long before the broadcasting debate, it was clear that Bush and Chavez were on a collision course. There are many reasons, but the hubris of both men is high on the list. This confrontation is not only unnecessary; it is unproductive. The sour fruits of this approach can be seen in the enormous dividends Cuba and the U.S. have reaped over the years through their policies of non-engagement: in the U.S., getting Latino votes; in Cuba, getting tourists and investors from other countries.

Except for a few politicians, a lose-lose proposition if there ever was one!

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