An Online Refuge for Venezuela’s Intellectuals
A mild-mannered economist has become Venezuela's unlikely media sensation — and provided a badly-needed resource for the country's intellectuals.
Stories about the Venezuelan media are usually depressing tales of doom and gloom. In the last few years, the government has yanked TV and radio stations off the air, denied independent newspapers the newsprint they need, and harassed journalists. It also controls dozens of TV and radio stations — all of them boring outlets that parrot official propaganda. It’s no surprise that the Venezuelan press is regarded as one of the least free in the hemisphere. But though Caracas has closed the doors on the traditional media, it has left open the window of the Internet. And one website is taking advantage: Prodavinci.
Talk with the cultural and intellectual elite in Caracas and you would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t regularly read the site. Launched more than six years ago, Prodavinci is a one-stop shop for Spanish-language analysis of the Venezuelan reality. In the words of its founder and editor, Angel Alayón, it aims to be “a magazine that tells you what is happening, but also why.”
Alayón is a rare bird in Venezuela’s public sphere. In a country where bravado is a prerequisite for getting noticed, he is as mild-mannered as they come. But behind his bookish glasses and his non-confrontational demeanor lies a truly keen editor — someone with an eye for what makes public opinion tick and a knack for saying what nobody else is saying in a way that is both uncontroversial and yet wholly original.
Alayón didn’t set out to be a media sensation. An economist trained at the University of Chicago, he thought he would go into private business or public policy. But the evolution of Venezuela’s media landscape, coupled with the emergence of digital media, has opened up new opportunities.
Prodavinci began in 2009 as Alayón’s personal blog, yet he quickly realized he was short on content. “I would read things in the New Yorker, or the Atlantic, or Slate, and I would wonder why Venezuela couldn’t have something like that,” Alayón told me recently. After inviting a few friends to join in, word spread around, and pretty soon many in Caracas’s intellectual elite wanted to post on his page. The format clicked, Alayón found a new name for the site (the reference to DaVinci is borne out of a call for a “renaissance” of ideas in the country), and the site now gets several million hits per month.
One of the first people to join was Boris Muñoz, a respected Venezuelan journalist and a contributor to the New Yorker. His chronicles of opposition candidate Henrique Capriles’s presidential campaign in 2012 remain one of Prodavinci’s highlights. “The secret to the success of Prodavinci,” says Muñoz, “is its unwavering commitment to fact-based analysis. Prodavinci has revitalized the debate for ideas that has been buried in the craziness that Venezuelan politics in the Chávez era has become, and that is in large part thanks to Angel.”
The website is an eclectic mix of current affairs, literature, and a sprinkling of pop culture. “Current events are over-represented in the media,” says Alayón. “What we try to do is provide a space where the reader can find a smart, fact-based reaction to what is happening.”
On a given day on Prodavinci, you might find an essay by top fiction writer and essayist Federico Vegas, an analysis of the latest legal happenings by the renowned constitutional lawyer José Ignacio Hernández, mixed in with Alayón’s discussion of the roots of scarcity in Venezuela, or even his take on the latest Game of Thrones episode (he is a hardcore fan).
One thing Alayón does not want the Venezuelan public to think is that Prodavinci is just a regular opinion page. “I always tell my writers that ‘opinion sucks,’ and what I mean is that in Venezuela, what passes as ‘opinion’ is not solid because it is not well-grounded. People can have an opinion, but they need to argue their points, not just state them.”
I asked Alayón if he has ever felt heat from the government. He says he does not think his site is on the government’s radar. “The government is more interested in quieting what we call ‘denunciation journalism,’ that is, the journalism that communicates the reality of what others are going through, rather than silencing the debate of ideas.”
Willy McKey is Alayón’s assistant editor at the magazine. He says the key to Prodavinci’s success is the fact that “we are all readers at the page. We basically publish what we want to read about.” McKey says that Alayón is the best editor he’s ever had. “He has an instinctive link with ideas,” he says. “His skepticism and his voracious appetite for reading make him a unique editing beast.”
Alayón isn’t buying any of the praise, and neither is his family. “My wife is supportive,” he says, “although she didn’t really know where this was going when we started out. And my boys, who are 9 and 5 … all they know is that Prodavinci is like a soccer team, and that their dad is the captain.”
Photo credit: Pal Kerese