El Universal Buyer Betting on Political Change in Venezuela

The acquisition of Venezuelan newspaper El Universal, which has criticized the government of Nicolas Maduro, is a bet that a political shift in the country will ease restrictions on media companies and opposition groups, according to the new owners’ representative.

“They are convinced that this is going to happen,” Jose Luis Basanta, who represents the group of investors that have bought the newspaper, said in an interview in Madrid when asked if they were expecting political change in the country.

El Universal is the third private media company to be sold since former President Hugo Chavez died from cancer last year and was succeeded by his hand-picked successor Nicolas Maduro. The Globovision television network stopped airing live speeches by opposition Governor Henrique Capriles after its 2013 sale. Capriles lost out to Maduro by the narrowest margin in 45 years in an emergency election after Chavez died.

A small group of friends with experience in the media, oil and real estate industries paid less than $22 million for El Universal, Basanta said. He said he has a contractual obligation not to disclose their identity.

“They don’t know if the change will occur with the current government, or with a different government,” Basanta said. “It could be a transition like the one that occurred in Spain where the regime dismantled itself from within in a pacific manner. Or it could be more complicated.”

Cadena Capriles, a newspaper chain that includes Venezuela’s best-selling daily Ultimas Noticias, was sold last year to an undisclosed buyer.

Editorial Line

The new president of El Universal, Jesus Abreu Anselmi, told reporters at the newspaper that the new owner has “no connections to the government” and that the editorial line would not be changed, according to a statement published on El Universal’s website on July 4.

The newspaper, founded 105 years ago, reduced its daily edition to two sections of eight pages on May 5 after saying in a statement on its website that the government was delaying dollar supplies to buy paper abroad.

The newspaper will have paper to operate, Abreu Anselmi told reporters, according to the statement.

The group plans to maintain the newspaper’s criticism of the government and keep star columnist Nelson Bocaranda, who they consider key to its commercial future, Basanta said.

“If you take Nelson Bocaranda out of there, you would wreck the paper,” Basanta added. “The editorial line is not going to be touched but only the days, the weeks and the months ahead will be able to demonstrate that.”

The newspaper, which has lost money for the past four years, was the group’s first acquisition through their holding company, Epalisticia SL, Basanta said. They have as much as $1 billion to invest, he said.

(Updates with comment from owners’ representative in fifth paragraph.)
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