A new Wikileaks cable could put Blackberry maker RIM in hot water over its dealings in Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. The cable, written by an anonymous U.S. diplomat, reveals the company was embroiled in a curious 2010 spat over advertising for a theater version of “Jesus Christ, Superstar.” It also suggests just how far the Venezuelan government was willing to go in order to cut off revenue to what it considered antagonistic media outlets.
The cable details how RIM joined its partner in that country, the government-owned phone giant Movilnet, in an effort to prevent a theater company from advertising in opposition-affiliated media outlets.
The Venezuelan production company, Palo de Agua, was producing a version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical when the controversy hit. Together, RIM and Movilnet had sponsored the production to the tune of $300,000. In late January 2010, Movilnet approached theater executive Michel Hausmann and demanded that RIM and Movilnet be allowed to block the theater from placing ads in outlets that had not been pre-screened by both sponsors. In addition to restricting publicity, the contract amendment would also have made it impossible for anti-government media to become co-sponsors of the musical.
When Hausmann turned to RIM for support in February, the Canadian company sided with the Venezuelan telecom firm, saying that it could not abandon its “biggest ally in the region.” The theater company backed out of the sponsorship deal in protest. According to the cable, Hausmann said his was “an autonomous business that did not mix its artistic objectives with ideologies that run contrary to principles of liberty and democracy.”
In response to the withdrawal, Movilnet began making threats to the theater company:
in the first hour after the news broke on February 26, Palo de Agua’s agent received a call from Movilnet asserting that Palo de Agua “would regret the decision” to go public, and should be prepared to “get screwed.”
The anonymous author ends with this comment about the whole strange — and to outsiders, petty-seeming — affair:
“The GBRV’s [Government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela’s] policy of withdrawing advertising from private media outlets it perceives to be “attacking the revolution” has already taken a significant toll on the financial prospects of many of those outlets (Reftel). This incident confirms the degree to which the GBRV seeks to shut off any source of revenue to media it considers politically antagonistic.”