Snowden and Venezuela: My bizarre experience in the surveillance state

In 2009, a private call placed from the US by Isabel Lara to her mother was broadcast on Venezuelan state TV. Secretly taped calls are routinely used there to disgrace political enemies—or worse. To locals, the South American surveillance state is an odd place for government transparency advocate and NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden to end up.

By Isabel Lara at 9:24 am Mon, Jul 8, 2013

Edward Snowden is heading to Venezuela? Seriously?

The Venezuelan government's offer of "humanitarian asylum" to Edward Snowden rang hollow to most Venezuelans, who are by now used to the government spying on opposition leaders, journalists and even their own loyalists. Not only does the government routinely record their phone conversations, it broadcasts them on government-owned TV channels.

The news that the NSA leaker has been offered asylum in Venezuela seems especially ironic to my mother and me. A few years ago, we had the bizarre experience of hearing one of our private phone calls aired on Venezuelan TV. It was played over and over again and "analyzed" by pro-government talk show host Mario Silva—a man who is now in disgrace himself because, in a weird twist of fate, a recording of him was leaked and broadcast on TV.

What was most surreal about our experience was that there was no excuse or justification for taping our phone conversation. None was needed. The government just had it.

It would be nice for Snowden, who cherishes privacy and freedom of speech so much, to be aware that in Venezuela one cannot have any expectation of either.

On Monday, Sept. 14, 2009 a private phone call between my mother and me was broadcast on two talk shows on the Venezuelan government TV station.

The video of our conversation and the talk show host editorializing on it was on the homepage of the Venezuelan government TV’s website the next day under the headline: "Rabietas, tristeza y frustración provocó en opositores fracaso de marcha contra Chávez" (Anger, Grief and Frustration in Opposition Provoked by Failure of Anti Chavez Demonstration). It was transcribed as a news story in the official Venezuelan Ministry of Communication and Information website.

We can be heard talking about the international anti-Chavez demonstrations, and how we thought they hadn’t been successful. I compared them to the much larger ones for democracy in Iran that I attended in DC.

We use our familiar nicknames: she calls me Chips, I call her Moops. Who knows how silly family nicknames start?

Why would a conversation between us be of interest to anybody? My mother, Maruja Tarre, was an outspoken critic of the Chavez government and she is often on television commenting on Venezuelan foreign policy. She is a columnist for the country’s oldest newspaper, El Universal, and is followed by thousands on Twitter. What happened to us would be like if a Fox News talk show acquired and then aired a tape of Donna Brazile telling her daughter the Democratic Party strategy seems to be failing.

It first aired on the talk show Dando y Dando hosted by Alberto Nolia, on a government-owned network. After listening to the recording with a grave face, Alberto said that Maruja Tarre "a so-called foreign policy expert" and all her family have harmed Venezuela for years and that her daughter who lives abroad could clearly be heard admitting to be the organizer of all "anti-Venezuelan" demonstrations in Washington D.C.

I listened to the recording again in astonishment to see if they had edited it to have me saying I was the organizer of the demonstrations, but they didn’t. His editorializing comments misconstrued what was in the recording.

Our private conversation aired again on the late night show, La Hojilla, hosted by Mario Silva. He plays clips from news shows edited to ridicule opposition politicians. The government has used "evidence" gathered by reporters on this show to accuse opposition leaders. After broadcasting our conversation, they said my mother was admitting the opposition had failed and that this must be true because she has often advised them. Then the hosts made fun of "Chips" (me) saying she must have been living abroad for a long time because she speaks "Spanglish" and calls her mother "Mom." They went on a tirade about the pretentious bourgeoisie that speaks in English as soon as they leave the country to appear sophisticated.

I was watching this live from my computer in Washington DC.

I logged on to Twitter to report that the Venezuelan government TV channel was broadcasting an illegally obtained private conversation between my mother and me.

Then, in a light-hearted manner, I tweeted that they had gotten the nicknames wrong: I don’t call my mother Mom, I call her Moops.

A few minutes later the hosts of La Hojilla had gone online to read my tweets, and my mother's tweets. Now, they were reading our tweets live, on air.

They read our words aloud, mocking us by reading them in the nasal accents associated with the "sifrinos" and "escualidos." They made us out to be ridiculous and snobbish, which is how the government wanted to brand the ever-growing opposition to populist president Chavez.

And then my mother started a Twitter-television war. She was watching the show from Venezuela, and started tweeting at Mario, the TV anchor, daring him to read what she was saying right then and there. My mother instigated what a media studies scholar might describe as the first ever tweet-to-TV live conversation. Definitely the first in Venezuela.

The television host tried to engage her in political discussion, and she replied with humor. He lost his temper and railed against the superficial elites. I thought she handled it wonderfully, and got the upper hand with irony and grace.

My mom won the Twitter war. I was proud.

This was an eye-opening incident. Like most Venezuelans, I have long been aware, on an intellectual level, that many calls are recorded and that my mother’s landline was most likely tapped.

But hearing my voice and family nicknames on Venezuelan government television was weird and unsettling.

It literally brought home all that wiretapping implies: loss of privacy, intimidation, surveillance.

The conversation they chose to air surprised me. We weren’t talking about anything secret or compromising. An informal conversation between a mother and daughter who talk many times a day commenting on current events was made out to be damning evidence of the opposition’s failure and division. There was also an inconsistent interpretation of the "evidence": in the first TV show I was made out to be a special agent organizing demonstrations against my country abroad (note how they say anti-Venezuela, not anti-Chavez) but in the second TV show I was portrayed as a spoiled Americanized teenager whining to her mother.

When my American friends heard about this they were shocked. Isn’t it illegal to wiretap a private citizen’s phone in Venezuela?

Of course it is, but the government does it and doesn’t even try to hide it. The recordings are made available on government websites.

That was four years ago. Since then, the Venezuelan government has grown even more aggressive in its use of private conversations to intimidate opposition activists, and even their own supporters.

Mario Silva, the powerful pro-government talk show host, came down in flames after a recording of a conversation between him and a Cuban intelligence officer was made public.

Recently, high-profile opposition congresswoman Maria Corina Machado had a conversation at another opposition leader's home—not a phone call this time, a face to face conversation—that lasted some hours, and was secretly recorded. It was edited down to a few minutes and broadcast on TV. The presenters described the recording as "proof that the opposition went to the State Department to plot a coup against the Venezuelan government." There is even a possibility that Maria Corina could go on trial for "treason to her homeland." All based on the "evidence" on the illegally obtained and highly edited tape.

I just wonder if Edward Snowden and the Americans cheering him on to my homeland are aware of all this.

Published 9:24 am Mon, Jul 8, 2013

About the Author

Isabel Lara was born in Boston and grew up in Venezuela. She has dual citizenship and takes voting in two countries very seriously. She lives in Washington, DC.

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