BY CHRONICLE STAFF
A little over three weeks ago, President Hugo Chavez gave the final go-ahead to close down Radio Caracas Television (RCTV), a 54-old broadcast company that had become the most popular national TV station in Venezuela thanks to its mix of soap operas and other entertainment programs. The stations equipment was confiscated by the government and its channel is now used by a state-run TV station.
Unlike most of his previous decisions, though, this one came with a surprise. Thousands of students, until now not seen as opponents of Chavez, staged massive protests on and off campuses, demanding freedom of expression.
Despite riot police breaking up their initial protests, they continued. Meanwhile, even Chavez own supporters opposed the RCTV shut-down. While a Datanalisis poll in April - a month before the shut-down of RCTV - showed that 64.7 percent of Venezuelans were happy with Chavez, a new poll conducted earlier this month by Hinterlaces showed that 51 percent of Venezuelans now say Chavez is acting like a dictator. Meanwhile, the number of Venezuelans opposing the RCTV shut-down have grown. A Datanalisis poll in May showed 70 percent opposing the shut-down and 16.4 supporting it. A Hinterlaces poll released last week shows that 79 percent opposed it. Even worse for Chavez - a new poll released Monday shows that 56.2 percent of his countrymen support the student protests, while only 23.8 percent oppose them.
All this is adding up, experts say. "In the short-term it weakened Chavez because for the first time he had to confront students in the streets," says Otto Reich, president of Washington, DC-based Otto Reich Associates and a former U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela who also served as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs.
Beatrice Rangel, managing director and president, AMLA Consulting, agrees. "The RCTV close-down ... weakened President Chavez in the short run, as...