Frontline: The Hugo Chávez Show

The television show that propels, shapes, and delivers Hugo Chávez remains odd and provocative.


Airtime: Tuesday, 9pm ET
Cast: Alberto Barrera, Jon Lee Anderson, Phil Gunson, Rafael Simón Jiménez, Teodoro Petkoff
MPAA rating: N/A
Subtitle: The Hugo Chávez Show
Network: PBS
US release date: 2008-11-25
How are you, Fidel?

-- Hugo Chávez, Aló Presidente

"Flying into Curacas," intones Frontline's narrator Will Lyman, "we were worried." The team, headed by producer Ofra Bikel, imagined they would be documenting current conditions in Venezuela -- oil, poverty, politics, and Hugo Chávez -- and looked forward understanding the many nuances and intersections of all these pieces. They had no idea just how complicated and strange their journey would be. As revealed in The Hugo Chávez Show, premiering 25 November, their focus became clear almost immediately: Chávez, Chávez, and more Chávez.

The fascinating film takes its title from the Venezuelan president's weekly television program, Aló Presidente. He uses the venue to address his citizens, to share "all his plans, memories, secrets, and pet peeves," address his fellow world leaders, and in particular, to "shout out" to Fidel Castro, whose Cuba is currently subsidized by Venezuela. The setting each Sunday is different (the preferred backdrop appears to be water) and every week the show begins with a "different subject," even if, Lyman says, "to the uninitiated, it all sounds the same." Though Teodoro Petkoff, the editor of Tal Cual, notes that Aló Presidente is advertised as a "variety show," it appears that any "variety" is limited to what's on the president's mind. He appears on horseback, singing, taking questions from an audience all dressed in Chávez-supporting red. He makes announcements concerning policies or troop movements. In every instance, he dominates: no one dares to challenge him on television, or anywhere else.

The film includes a series of talking heads who describe the president's self-image. Politician Rafael Simón Jiménez suggests Chávez sees himself as "a classic llano," a man from the plains who "really lives on his horse." The figure is grand and romantic, Jiménez says, and so is Chávez, "the way he talks, the way he combines half-truths with truths. It's a little like the genre made popular by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, magical realism." Journalist Jon Lee Anderson says that Chávez "obeys none of the rules for what is expected of a head of state or, for that matter, a public official on television." In his weekly process of self-invention, he is "probably the world's first virtual president in the age of the communication revolution." And biographer Alberto Barrera asks, "Which one of all the Chávezes we know is the most authentic? I don't know the answer. It's becoming harder to say. Because Chávez is a myth in progress, he's entering into mythic territory. I think he sees himself as being different. He wants to be a legend."

Indeed, Chávez's performances are of a piece with his political and personal history. Though he once aspired to playing professional baseball (he was a talented pitcher), he joined the army at 20 and became immersed in the Bolivarian Movement, a "group of young military men who set up goals based on the problems of the country," as these might be solved through the life and teachings of Simon Bolivar. Seeking to liberate Venezuela from corruption and class inequality, the Movement gave Chávez a ground for his own ambitions.

The film tracks his erratic course to the presidency, noting that the most important moment of his failed 1992 coup against President Carlos Andrés Péres came when he appeared before television cameras. Here, as he delivered his "Bolivarian message," his charisma became manifest. "He was greeting the people as if it was a program," observes Barrera, "He triumphed in terms of public relations. The public Chávez who was born was born not out of a military or political victory, but out of the ratings." Sent to prison for two years, Chávez emerged with a political career in mind. Elected president in 1998, he has since used the media to make his cases for various causes, from the redistribution of the nation's oil wealth to factory cooperatives to community organizing to constitutional reform, including his effort to extend his tenure as president indefinitely (this proposal was, in fact, voted down).

On his TV show, no matter how else his administration is faring elsewhere, Chávez is brilliant, if scary. Frontline recounts the president's frequent practice of introducing and then questioning cabinet ministers on the show. They must come "prepared for any question thrown at them on live TV," says Phil Gunson. "Some make it others don't." Professor Colette Caprilies, of Simon Bolivar University, adds, "The president's Sunday show becomes not only the place where decisions are made, but a place where decision-making is exhibited. Showing how the president makes the good decisions while the ministers make mistakes. It's a mechanism a device to keep the president from bad decision-making. Those who always appear guilty of the mistakes are the ministers, who are judged by the president in front of 15 million viewers."

If this harsh, Chávez-serving process leaves officials in visible lurches, it also opens up risks for journalists he deems emblems. Frontline shows the particularly harrowing adventure of Rory Carroll, who writes for London's Guardian. Called on by Chávez during one show, he comes up with an impromptu question concerning the president's attempt to make his own term unlimited, though not those of Venezuelan governors.

Taking the question as an affront and a challenge, the president goes on to speak at length about the revolution, unfair treatment by European press, and the threats posed by U.S. imperialism. (Carroll recalls being nervous when prompted to ask the question, then mystified by the length answer.) When Chávez brings up the issues of poverty and "safety," Frontline notes that Curacas now has the second highest murder rate in the Americas, that citizens are afraid of regular assaults, robberies, and kidnappings. Petkoff insists, "I believe that history will have to acknowledge that Hugo Chávez has turned the social question [poverty] into the great Venezuelan theme, the most important issue of the country." This may be so, but the format of the question -- specifically, the "show" that propels, shapes, and delivers Hugo Chávez -- remains odd and provocative.


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