CARACAS (Reuters) - President Hugo Chavez’s unpopular closure of Venezuela’s last nationwide opposition TV station consolidated his power despite sparking anger at home and abroad.
Chavez’s move six months after a landslide re-election was the calculated culmination of years of marginalizing the opposition in the OPEC nation.
For a president who calls Cuban leader Fidel Castro his mentor and vows to rule for decades, the benefits to him of the May 27 shutdown outweighed the costs, said Luis Vicente Leon, a political analyst at polling firm Datanalisis.
“It has significantly hurt his image abroad ... and people are really upset here too,” Leon said.
“But Chavez took the hit because he is looking to the future. He has removed an enemy, he has removed the only institution that criticized him and reached his poor supporters.”
Replacing the most-viewed station with a dull public service channel drew rebukes over democracy from typical critics such as Washington and international rights groups as well as from allied governments from Brazil to Spain.
Most Venezuelans also rejected RCTV’s closure — complaining as much about losing their cherished soap operas as their right to freedom of speech — and the measure has become a rallying cry for a nascent pro-democracy student movement.
Still, Venezuelans have also repeatedly shown in national votes they care more about Chavez keeping up his spending of oil revenue on food handouts and clinics than about any erosion of freedoms.
The man who led a botched coup in 1992 before winning office at the ballot box six years later has amassed full support in Congress, the courts, the military and the national oil company for his drive to create a socialist state.
With political rivals either discredited as part of the old guard or unable to offer the majority poor a credible alternative to “El Comandante,” the media had been the president’s main opposition.
But, dependent on the government for advertising revenue, major private stations have changed their editorial line to favor a president whose brief ouster they had openly supported in 2002.
The lone hold-out was RCTV.
The ex-colonel pulled the plug on the 53-year-old station by refusing to renew its concession license on the grounds it backed the putsch.
Chavez, 52, granted other channels an extension but changed their contracts so that their licenses come up for renewal again a few months before he faces re-election in 2012.
The one Venezuelan station that avoids self-censorship and remains staunchly opposed to Chavez is only seen in limited areas across the South American nation of Amazon jungle, Andean mountains and Caribbean coastline.
Chavez, who rules by decree, has publicly warned the station he will close it if he deems it has gone too far.
The president has also so far faced down the largest and most persistent daily demonstrations against his government in months.
After days of sometimes violent demonstrations in the polarized country, Chavez brought tens of thousands of his own supporters to the streets. He chillingly ordered shantytown dwellers in the hills around Caracas, many of whom are armed, to be “on alert.”
Student demonstrators, who give security forces flowers and paint their hands white as a symbol of peace, appear to have little appetite for confrontation, preferring to cancel marches rather than break police cordons blocking their path.
At one anti-Chavez rally, dozens of his supporters on motorbikes sent the mainly middle-class university students scurrying by riding slowly toward the crowd. The helmeted men dressed in Chavez’s signature red laughed as they passed the marchers jumping over barriers to get out of the way.
“We doubt that the opposition will be able to organize itself effectively and place the administration in a tight spot,” Bear Stearns said about the protests.
The investment bank advised its clients to buy more Venezuelan debt, a sign it saw the risk of political turmoil waning despite concern over a wave of nationalizations.
And Chavez dismisses the demonstrations as a futile U.S.-backed effort to oust him the way street protests ushered in a new government in Ukraine in 2004.
“We will pulverize the imperialist soft coup strategy,” he told a pro-government rally. “It’s a show, it’s a show set up to get a photograph that can be sent around the world.”
Additional reporting by Jorge Silva