The Importance of Venezuela for the Iranian Public Discourse: the Case of HispanTV
Relations between Iran and Venezuela had their honeymoon during the Hugo Chávez and the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad administrations. Usually, commercial cooperation was commonly quoted to explain this curious approach in which, Hugo Chavez earned the paradoxical nickname of “Chavez de Arabia y Persia”. But despite the fact that trade has been extremely poor between the two governments, this connection has been growing in recent years where the Iranian public discourse has been located as one of the main pillars in this relationship.
The public discourse is powerful because it is the place where leaders in the Caracas and Teheran can openly criticize, demonize, and criminalize the actions and sanctions imposed by the United States. This approach is useful to understand how these discourses are addressed to and consumed by social bases of the Bolivarian Republic and the Islamic Republic respectively, strengthening the roles played by the government in domestic politics and considering the positive reception that anti-imperialist and anti-zionist slogans still have in some popular sectors who support to ruling elite. According to some polls, just 33% of Venezuelans openly approve its government, especially among people belonging to the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, while in Iran just 47% of Iranians have said that they had confidence in their national government.
In the last half century, Latin American history demonstrated towards Iran how anti-imperialism and nationalism are used to mobilize the masses when combined. The perspective represented by some of the Latin American intellectuals as: José Martí, Bolívar Echeverría, Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Augusto César Sandino, resonated in strong anti-Western sentiments that Iranian intellectuals like Ali Shariati, Hosein Ali Montazeri, Menhdi Bazargan, and many other scholars produced during the 1979 Revolution. This fact facilitated the ways in which Iran reshaped the emergence of Iran's post-revolutionary discourse of “economic independence” and “economic of resistance” against Washington in the contemporary public sphere, and now it is the reason behind Iran´s alliance with some Latin American nations that are geographically close to the United States.
One example of this strategy is the Iranian news television channel in the Spanish language called “HispanTV”, a project implemented between the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television, and the Venezuelan news channel Tele Sur, where anti-imperialist narratives function as a performative mechanism of the public opinion which not only reaffirms the image of the United States as a colonial and military power in the Middle East and in Latin America, but also connects Iran with other audiences where the Iranian perspective of world affairs is widely heard, produced, and reproduced, taking advantage of the exhaustion of credibility of some American media discourses like CNN en español which usually is silent with people engaged in struggles for social justice in Latin America, while spending most of its time covering social unrests in countries like Cuba, Venezuela, and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Even though it is based in Madrid, Spain, HispanTV can be watched in whole Latin America via streaming and satellite television. In a content analysis, HispanTV addresses international issues with special criticism of the role played by the United States on world politics, using historical examples, interviews, and various other types of intellectuals to openly criticize the main relevant problems of American society. For instance, the economic sanctions against Iran are treated as a “criminal aggression against the Iranian people”; the normalization of diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates is interpreted as “a betrayal for the Palestinians”, and other facts such as the most recent United States elections of 2020 that are portrayed as “the violent and chaotic elections”, highlighting the atmosphere of social protest and violence in the streets of the United States.
Among the most important TV shows for Latino audiences is “Detrás de la Razón”, which is a research journalism style that seeks to expand Iranian soft power on issues of international relevance through expert panels where Iran is usually defended as a nation interrupted. In addition, the program “A la calle en EEUU” also makes reports about the issues of interest to the Latino population living in the United States with a very critical perspective on the problems of racism, poverty, and abuse of power in different cities of the country. The newscasts led by Roberto de la Madrid, a Mexican journalist with extensive experience, has been especially controversial given that he has received criticism for working in this Iranian network despite the fact that Iran is new as a country where journalists experience serious violations of the right to freedom of speech.
According to Joseph Humire, HispanTV broadcast also targets indigenous communities in Latin America. In countries like Peru and Ecuador, indigenous communities represent approximately 10% of the population, but in others like Bolivia they represent 40%. This is important because HispanTV usually emphasizes concerns in indigenous communities such as poverty and racism, underlining that these types of problems, particularly extreme poverty, have been a direct consequence of European colonialism and US neo-colonialism, as well as of labor exploitations from some American and European transnational companies.
But rhetoric in Iran-Venezuela relations is not only a matter of words. Even if the public image of defying the Universalist world order led by the US is useful, in practical terms this also has produced a rapprochement in intelligence issues and military cooperation in both governments to strengthen the control and surveillance over dissident groups inside their territories. The vulnerabilities in national security in Teheran and Caracas explain the logic of digital media companies like HispanTV and Tele Sur, sharing intellectuals, journalists, and information sources that make this very good friendship one important information network to deal with national threats. At the end of the day, it is necessary to remember that the two most important factors to avoid coups in modern times are, at least: the media and the staff of armed forces. So, the exchange of translators, political observers, and high-level military training is a clue to understand the level of cooperation between Iran and Venezuela where issues such as Juan Guaidó-Maduro tensions in 2019, on the Venezuelan side, or the assassination of Abol Qassem Soliemani in 2020, in the case of Iran, are solid evidence to understand the real concerns in strategic terms in Venezuela and Iran respectively.
Finally, we have to understand that this kind of cooperation is extended to some political issues. To Iran, influencing the Venezuelan public sphere also means influencing the Great Caribbean Zone, which strategically implies more information, more votes in international organizations, and some security agreements. So, when some scholars like Elliot Abrams manifest concerns that the presence of Iran in Venezuela could detonate a crisis of missiles such as the one presented with Cuba many years ago, what he is actually doing is attacking the Iranian media strategy by making controversial and bombastic statements that attract the attention of the public opinion at the same level that Iran is doing with HispanTV shows. The multiple media campaigns of “Iran as a terrorist sponsor”, “Iran as the axis of evil”, “Iran as the nuclear threat”, or the latest “maximum pressure against Iran”, are evidence for my argument. Washington knows very well that power is primarily found in people´s imagination and when this power fades then it is time for the use of weapons and coups d'état to safeguard economic and political interests. However, it is necessary to remind us that we are no longer in the Cold War period and that the battle for regional hegemony is taking place in the field of information, perception, and emotions, a battle where Iran has invested a lot of money and patience not only in Latin America, but in other parts of the world where the information revolution is permeating the politics of 21st century.
Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of IRAM.