Last week’s news that Hugo Chávez has once again broken ties with Colombia was hardly a shock.
The break follows Colombia providing an Organisation of American States (OAS) meeting in Washington with video, audio and photographic evidence that Venezuela is harbouring members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, Farc and the National Liberation Army (ELN).
Colombia’s ambassador to the OAS, Luis Alfonso Hoyos, went further alleging that the paramiltaries “eat fried pork and get fat in order to rest before launching attacks in Colombia”. Chavez denies the charges and certainly has his defenders, one being Oliver Stone, whose new film “South of the Border” has been criticised as a hagiography of South America’s Bolivarian leaders.
Another high profile fan is Diego Maradona, who was inexplicably present at the press conference where Chávez broke ties with Colombia.
The arrest of three Colombian journalists on 16 July in the Venezuelan town of El Nula seemed to many to be just another example of Latin America’s turbulent relationship with the media. Delve a little deeper, however, and there is much more to the story. The three Colombians were in El Nula on a tip off that the head of the ELN was in town. Whats more, having been detained for not having visa documentation (which they did not need under a border agreement between the two countries), they were released two days later, minus an audio tape and accusing their captors of ill treatment. All this in the same week that Venezuela was busy denying that there are terrorist camps in the country.
The story confirms that freedom of expression in Venezuela is under threat. Colombia, rated by Freedom House as only partly free and with a history of violence against journalists, is hardly without problems itself.
The Chávez government recently took control of 45.8 per cent of the staunchly anti-Chávez media broadcaster Globovision. The president of Globovision, Guillermo Zuloaga, won the 2010 Inter American Press Association (IAPA) Grand Prize for Press Freedom but has lived in exile in Florida since a warrant was issued for his arrest in June over financial irregularities.
Chávez is still undoubtedly loved by many; he survived a 2002 coup attempt after the public mobilised in his defence, despite misleading television reports accusing Chávez protestors of inciting violence. So why does he feel the need to clamp down on the press?