The Censor’s Evil Dream
In February 2018 a delegation from PEN International visited Caracas to examine the state of the freedom of speech in the country. The outcome of this visit is a report by the Mexican writer and journalist Alicia Quiñones. Here in PEN/Opp Quiñones writes that: “Part of the reading of this report tells us that the great dream of censorship seems to be coming true in Venezuela.”
A little bit over sixty years ago, on January 1st of 1958, a young Colombian journalist landed on the airport of Maiquetía, in the city of Caracas, Venezuela, to make a portrait with his pen of the transformation that was going on in several places of our continent, but mostly in the Venezuelan capital. While this reporter was witnessing the transformation of Latin-Americans, he tried to give a spin to journalism by proposing a cohabitation of the trade of the reporter and the trade of the narrator.
“These lines are being written at the dawn of January 23rd. Not a single shot is heard in Caracas. The people are reclaiming the streets. Venezuela, freedom. The greatest evidence that something big has happened is that these lines can be written”, said the young journalist in the first editorial he published.
That young man was Gabriel García Márquez, who arrived in a Venezuela that had just started witnessing the fall of Marcos Pérez Jiménez’ dictatorship. That time, as described by Tomás Eloy Martínez, an Argentinian intellectual exiled in Venezuela in the 1980s, in his classic Defensa de la Utopía (“A Defense of Utopia), became the “mythical founding of cultural journalism” in Latin America.
That was also one of the deciding moments for Ibero-American journalism to begin consolidating as cutting edge and as a platform for writers who would later be seen as intellectuals and political actors themselves.
And all of that was possible, to some extent, because the Venezuela that García Márquez and his contemporaries portrayed coincided with the fight and the arrival of democracy, and, to another extent, because, in the magazine that the writer joined, Momento, “men from other corners of the Spanish language, thrown out of their homelands by the misfortunes of political persecution and wars, joined together.” This magazine, as others that were appearing then, represented a home for freedom and a space for dissent.
More than half a century has gone by since the author of Leaf Storm, along with a brilliant generation of writers, portrayed what would be the shift towards the longed-for justice or peace.
During these six decades, the Venezuela that García Márquez’s pen saw has suffered a profound and obscure transformation. It is now a land bordered by a wall that hinders the freedom of their narrators, poets, journalists and young voices that are trying to emerge or portray a world whose darkness does not seem to have an end.
In this context, where more journalist and writers suffer censorship every day, and the country is in decline in terms of human rights, a mission was carried out by PEN International in Caracas, in February of 2018, to learn more about the situation of freedom of speech and the repression suffered by writers and journalists. This mission was joined by Nicaraguan author Gioconda Belli, and Carles Torner, executive director of PEN International, and it had the amazing support of Espacio Público, one of the most solid associations for the defense of journalists.
This visit’s main goal was to talk to the writers and found, once again, the Venezuela PEN Center; during the meeting, a report was drafted and presented on 2018. In it, cases of writers who have suffered censorship, repression, and reduction of their cultural rights were also shown. The report can be consulted in Spanish and in English.
Part of the reading of this report tells us that the great dream of censorship seems to be coming true in Venezuela: that silence or fear that unfolds as an omnipresent watchman, that has permeated both social events and the personal sphere, has direct consequences both on traditional and digital mass media, and in private conversations. That censorship for which there is no way to measure, but that reveals itself in society with the same seriousness as a physical attack on a writer or journalist.
Year after year, in the 20th century, the freedom and respect for human rights in Venezuela have eroded in such a way that authors, editors and journalists live in a situation never seen before in regards to the freedom to exercise their job, to investigate or to print books. The administrations of Hugo Chávez (1999-2013) and Nicolás Maduro (2013 to date) have allowed and encouraged the intimidation and persecution of those who criticize their administrations.
One of Venezuela’s most outstanding investigative journalists of the last few decades, Eurídice Ledezma, who was attacked and threatened on different occasions, most recently in May of 2017 by agents of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (Sebin), makes a panoramic reflection on her country’s situation in terms of freedom: “It is interesting to make a panoramic retrospective of Venezuela. We have always had issues with freedom of speech. During the Fourth Republic [a period between the end of Marco Pérez Jiménez’s dictatorship and the appearance of the Constituent National Assembly with Chávez], there was not much openness. During the decade of 1970, there were some paramilitary groups persecuting people (…). There were times when you had to defend yourself from the guerrilla, but you were able to talk about it, there were independent media who dared to speak about reality; let’s say it has always been risky to be a journalist in the country, but never as it is now. Like now, never […]. Today, the idea is to destroy the enemy, be it an opponent, a politician, a non-governmental organization, a journalist or a writer; persecution has been and is very difficult because they speak about peace and freedom…, but if you are here, you become aware of the level of devastation in the country.”
Censorship has not only taken over politics and the media, it has also become part of the smallest and most necessary spheres of life: the streets, the homes, the every-day conversations. The censor appears to have won the match over freedom of speech in the intimate life.
J.M. Coetzee called this “the dream of the censorship law”, which means that “the law and its restrictions will become so deeply embedded in citizenry that individuals will keep watch on themselves. Censorship waits hopefully for the day when writers will censor themselves, and the censor will be able to retire.” Reflecting on the free thoughts of Caracas’ young writers, poet Carlos Katam (Caracas, 1992), author of Impercepciones, says, “My participation is not public in that I do not write opinion pieces, but I can recognize that there is a problem with freedom. I know what I can say and what I cannot say, and I know in which places, and these places are not only the public ones, but also the private.”
The words of the young writer and philosophy student at the Central University of Caracas are complemented by the reflections of Edda Armas, honorary president of PEN Venezuela, writer, journalist, editor, and author of books as Armadura de piedra (2008): “Many writers have exercised self-censorship. Some prefer to stay quiet, some don’t, and others have just not been able to tolerate the situation and decided to leave the country, and their exile allows them to maintain a critical stance throughout their books, blogs, Twitter accounts or within their lengthy essay in which they analyze restrictive aspects of what is happening to us in Venezuela these days; they have done it and continue to do so from the cities and countries where they are. You can feel self-censorship, you live, you feel its beats, you see people watching what they say and it’s not necessarily an issue of cowardice.”
Right now, the Venezuelan society is not only living a covered or direct self-censorship, it is also suffering the consequences of violence in its daily life. A violence that has reached the media through the indiscriminate lock-down of newspapers, radio stations, and cultural spaces, the control of the paper to print newspapers or books, as well as the quasi-disappearance of editorial life, a key requisite for freedom of speech and the dissemination of Venezuelan literature.
The crisis that the Caribbean country is facing has led to journalists and writers being more worried about their everyday life, about trying to obtain the basic things they need in their daily life (food or medicines, for example), than about producing literature or writing for the media. This has resulted in a diaspora that is being reflected in a humanitarian, intellectual and economic tragedy.
Lawsuits with processes that lack transparency and threats to withdraw passports to reporters, another key factor to leave a country, have forced them into an unavoidable exile, as explained in the aforementioned report by Alfredo Meza, a partner at Armando.info. The text that earned them their exile is also presented in this edition of PEN/Opp.
Freedom of speech is a right that cuts through all areas of life in a country and in the exercise of all rights; thus, this freedom in a democracy allows for the safe exercise of the rest of citizens' rights. Writers, journalists, editors, and almost every citizen in Venezuela is experiencing a climate of repression, for starters, because in this country those who disagree with the government suffer reprisals.
For at least half a decade, there has been a critical deterioration in terms of the respect for human rights. Particularly, since 2014—the year after Nicolas Maduro took office as president of Venezuela, a pivotal moment in terms of socio-political conflicts—, repression of freedom of speech has intensified.
According to the nonprofit organization Espacio Público, 350 cases and 579 complaints of violations of freedom of speech were documented in 2014, the largest number since 2002. In 2015, 287 violations of freedom of speech were counted, corresponding to 234 cases; while in 2016, intimidating practices, the institutional and physical violence that criminalizes the search and dissemination of information in Venezuela, worsened. 2016 was the second year with the highest number of cases in fifteen years of registration, with 366 violations of the right to freedom of speech and information.
However, in 2017, according to the information of the Venezuelan organization, there were 708 cases in which the right to freedom of speech was violated, which corresponds to a total of 1002 violations. This represents an increase of 173% over the same period in the previous year. This places 2017 as the period with the highest number of violations of the law registered in the last 16 years, coming as a consequence of the unprecedented levels of repression against a massive day of street protests against the government, mostly peaceful, between the months of April and July.
These data not only reflect the number of aggressions that the right to freedom of expression has suffered, but also show the ascending scale that is being experienced in the Caribbean country. The year 2017 was the most violent in relation to attacks on freedom of speech.
This is an institutional violence which reminds us that Garcia Márquez’s Venezuela is not only lost, but that the dream of the law of censorship has been trying to win the battle against critical voices.
Alicia Quiñones is a Mexican writer, editor and journalist. She works as a consultant in Latin America for PEN International. She is the author of three poetry books. She has worked in various media for Mexico and Latin America such as Rolling Stone, Vice, Milenio, and La Razón, where she is a columnist.
J. M. Coetzee. (2014). Contra la censura. México: Debate, Penguin Random House.