This month we begin a new series looking at the US presidential election through the eyes of foreign correspondents. First is Venezuelan Roselena Ramírez, who heads the Washington DC bureau of TeleSUR, a Venezuelan-controlled television station. The channel was founded in 2005 by President Hugo Chávez and is regarded as his mouthpiece (in May 2007 he closed down Venezuela’s RCTV, for failing to support his government).
TeleSUR occupies three tiny rooms on the fourth floor of the Associated Press building in Washington DC. The station’s modest US operations are run by Roselena Ramírez, a former print journalist from rural Venezuela, who is involved in every aspect of the bureau’s daily output; a 90-second news segment which is sent to Caracas every evening.
Monocle: Where does TeleSUR’s money come from?
Roselena Ramírez: Venezuela has the majority percentage in the company. It pays but the other countries [see box] offer support, people, and knowledge.
M:You only have four people on staff here. Is that enough?
RR: No, it’s not enough: there’s one reporter, one assistant and one cameraman and me. I do reports, I do editing, and sometimes I even do the camera.
M: Do some Americans think that Chávez is involved in the day-to-day operations of TeleSUR?
RR: Yes, of course. Look: this press pass took one and a half years to get. With this you can get in to the Congress, the White House, the State Department. You need it, and I didn’t get one at first. I went in front of a panel with 20 journalists: Fox News, CNN, ABC. All of them asked: “Does Chávez control your company?” And I was like, “What!? Does that mean that the president of Coca-Cola runs your channel? Does the Disney president call you guys at ABC and tell you “Hey, you have to do this or that?” No! I’m pretty sure you would not accept that as a journalist. I am a journalist!
M: How will TeleSUR be covering the forthcoming US elections?
RR: For 2008, we are trying to get interviews with the main candidates, which is not easy for us because we don’t broadcast in America and they are looking for votes now. We will propose plans to cover the elections to our headquarters in Caracas. In June or July we will be more clear about who the candidates will be.
M: Do any of the candidates particularly appeal to the viewers of TeleSUR?
RR: In Latin America there are four people who are well known: Guiliani because of September 11; the actor [Fred Thompson]; Hillary because her husband was the president and because of the sex scandal; and Obama because he’s black. Those are the candidates who Latin Americans recognise. With Hillary, it’s more because she’s a wife who’s been cheated on than because she’s a woman.
M: So people are more into the personal?
RR: In Latin America it’s the gossip and everything. It’s almost entertainment.
M: How would you describe the relationship between Latin America and the US?
RR: As Latin Americans we think we are the backyard of America. Every Latin American politician who doesn’t want the money of the US says so. You can’t ask for help because that probably means that the Americans will try and interfere with the politics and internal affairs. Latin America has a history of being meddled in. Every coup d’état in Latin America has a faction that is American. It’s like it has a trademark: “Made in the US”. We are talking about Argentina, the Nicaragua situation, the El Salvador situation.
M: But if people feel this way, is there a sense that things could change in Latin America with a new US administration?
RR: We know we can’t interfere. The US will choose who it wants. We don’t feel that things could change with another president, because the US is an imperialist model. As Latin Americans, we are all different countries and independent – some voices are loud, others are quiet, but they’re asking the same thing: respect. In some ways, we think that the new president is important, but we know we can’t do anything more than ask for respect. It’s the same continent!
M: Are there specific story concerns for you as a journalist from Venezuela in a country whose administration is diametrically opposed to that of your country?
RR: Yes, but I try to remember that we are here not for the government, we are here for the people of Latin America. I don’t care that the Venezuelan government hates the American government and vice versa. We are broadcasting for Latin Americans, not for governments.
M: Are you under any obligation to report in a particular way about US issues because this is a state-funded TV station?
RR: That’s a very interesting question: we don’t get any editorial direction. I only have to tell the truth and show it. Latin Americans think here in the US there is no poverty, no suffering. They think everything is good, everything is Disneyland. But there is poverty here, there are people losing their homes. When I come here and learn that in the political capital of the world you find exclusion and poverty, I only have to show it. Show the reality and tell the truth and that’s it.
M: How would you call the election?
RR: Personally, I would like to see an African-American become president but this is something Americans must decide. Hopefully they can make a good decision without me weighing in.
Hugo Chávez was elected to the presidency of Venezuela on 6 December 1998, and has been a thorn in the side of US administrations ever since. Tensions escalated when a coup ousted Chávez for 48 hours in April 2002. While most nations condemned the action, the US immediately recognised the interim government.
Once reinstated, Chávez accused the US of advising the group who staged the coup, though involvement has not been proven. Referencing the philosophies of South American independence hero Simón Bolívar, Chávez advocates a Latin American union and has targeted President George W Bush as an example of a neo-imperialist. In a speech on Venezuelan TV in March 2006, Chávez described Bush as a “coward, a killer, a [perpetrator of] genocide, an alcoholic, a liar, an immoral person, Mr Danger”.
Chávez is emboldened by Venezuela’s oil wealth; the US is unable to react strongly to his actions because Venezuela is the US’s fourth largest oil supplier. In a recent speech William R Brownfield, former US ambassador to Venezuela, said: “There are two different models or visions for the future… We express and support one. The government of Venezuela expresses and supports another.”
Viewer numbers: “At least two million” according to director, Ahram Aharonian. A multi-state company “created by the investments of”: Argentina, Bolivia, Cuba, Uruguay, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.
Tagline: The New Television of the South.
Bureaux: In Bogotá, Brasília, Buenos Aires, Caracas, La Paz, Mexico City, Lima, Quito, Managua, Port-au-Prince, Havana, Washington DC.
Distribution: A satellite station broadcasting to 20 Latin American countries, parts of the Caribbean, Europe and Asia. TeleSUR has an advisory panel of “international and regional leftist intellectuals” including Ignacio Ramonet, editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, and actor Danny Glover.