Venezuela: The End of Newspapers?

I recently got a call from the owner and editor of “El Nacional,” the longstanding Venezuelan daily, in which Miguel Henrique Otero told me that things are even worse than what has been reported in relation to his country’s newspaper industry.

Since the end of last year, the government has refused to allow the print media access to foreign currency with which to pay for newsprint imports. Otero happens to buy paper from Canada and the United States, but others get their supply from Brazil, Finland, and other places. All of them have been requesting the authorities to lift the restriction for weeks. Their inventories are dwindling and they have run out of ways to survive in this environment—they’ve already drastically reduced the number of pages published. Some of them, such as “El Impulso” in Barquisimeto, are literally a few days from having to shut down their operations entirely. Others, including “El Nacional,” have enough newsprint to last four more weeks.

What is CADIVI, the government body in charge of allocating foreign currency, arguing? Literally nothing. In order to maintain the fiction that the government is not acting deliberately against these outlets, CADIVI has not officially barred newspapers from obtaining foreign currency. It is simply refusing to exchange it in practice.

In many other areas of the economy, when people need U.S. dollars they resort to the black market, obtaining them at an exchange rate ten times higher than the official one (68.7 bolívares per dollar is the going rate in the streets). Obviously, newspaper companies cannot do the same in relation to their import needs. It would be impossible for them to hide the transaction and the origin of the currency. Not to speak of the risks they would run under a government that harasses them judicially and administratively day in, day out.

Part of the problem, of course, is “atmospheric”: the general climate in which the economy operates is marked, among other disasters, by the precipitous loss of foreign reserves at the central bank. In 2013, they dropped 28 percent. But, according to Otero, this does not explain the predicament in which newspapers find themselves. There have been comparably tough situations in the past and the relatively small amount of foreign currency needed for newsprint imports was made available. This is just a golden opportunity for the government “to get rid of newspapers.”

Why newspapers? Because, after the government´s success in putting TV networks under political control (the last independent outlet was sold under pressure to government cronies) and suffocating pretty much all criticism in radio, the newspaper industry is the last man standing. (The situation in the digital media is a bit more mixed, but its political impact so far is limited.)

Although their social impact bears no comparison with the audiovisual media, newspapers have taken on a disproportionate political significance. Which is why the highest-ranking members of the government attack them publicly as a matter of routine.

Nicolás Maduro, a president whose legitimacy has been questioned since his shady electoral “victory” in April of last year, is using restrictions on newsprint imports, an essential for newspapers, to crush the last remnants of critical opinion and independent reporting.

Print media owners and journalists are asking for international solidarity. If Maduro manages to annihilate the newspaper industry, he will have taken a huge step towards the final aim of creating a second Cuba in the Western Hemisphere.

Alvaro Vargas Llosa is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute. His Independent books include Global Crossings, Liberty for Latin America, and The Che Guevara Myth.
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