Tonight, PBS’s Frontline will air “The Hugo Chavez Show: An illuminating inside view of the mercurial Venezuelan president, his rise to power, and the new type of revolution he seems to be inventing – on television.” In the Washington Post review of the show, David Montgomery writes:
What Americans have been missing is a direct encounter with the temperamental, charming, fierce, cruel, seductive, whimsical and overwhelming personality that comes through on “Aló, Presidente.” When Chávez, 54, isn’t ordering troops to the border, he’s singing folk songs, riding horses and tractors, tramping through gorgeous countryside or castigating cabinet ministers who fail pop quizzes that he administers as the cameras roll.
In 2004, I was in the audience for Chavez’ “Aló, Presidente” … for 5 hours. And this was one of his shorter
shows! It was one of the most fascinating examples of political theater I’ve ever seen. He used media deftly to create a politically engaged populace.
Here are some of my journal notes from that day – January 18, 2004 – Caracas, Venezuela:
We were invited to be in the audience during the screening of President Chavez’ weekly television program. After coffee and about an hour’s wait, we were led to a tent behind the presidential house where the filming would take place (it is in a different location each week) and seated in chairs with our names on them in the midst of cameras and microphones and the “set” for the show.
Then Chavez sat at a desk “on stage” and for five hours hosted a program with only two short breaks. He talked about teachers in honor of National Teachers Day – honoring and joking with the Minister of Education who was present. He introduced an old prize fighter who was also present. He talked about the cross and scapular he wears. He chatted on the phone through a call-in mechanism with a number of people from around the country – a young girl about her school, one woman about the need for her to get involved in elections for mayor in her town, another woman about jobs for her sons and her nephew.
He talked about how unemployment was often the result of the neoliberal capitalist model and how Venezuela was creating a new economy – that they were going to initiate another revolution within the revolution by starting a new “mission” called Mision Vuelven Cara. This new mission will train and incorporate workers into development projects that will emphasize small farms and forestry projects, petroleum related businesses, tourism etc. The unemployed will be included as they build Venezuela’s capacity for productive employment. Then he recommended a book on the rebellion of 1840.
Then he went on to talk about how Venezuela has a deficit of beef and would be importing beef for a while from Brazil and Argentina, but that Venezuelans will be trained to raise beef, as well as for dairy farming. He said that it was good for poor people to eat more beef for the protein and that beef would be made available in poor neighborhoods for purchase in small quantities. He introduced the new Minister of Defense. He read from newspaper articles about the strengthened position of Venezuela in the world.
Then he spoke about the 1979 Puebla Conference of Latin American Catholic bishops which outlined the preferential option for the poor and he talked about the death of Oscar Romero. Chavez said that the challenge before Venezuela now is to take up the challenge of an option for the poor. Fr. Roy Bourgeouis was invited to make a statement. Fr. Roy talked about the School of the Americas and asked Venezuela to stop sending soldiers there for training. Chavez listened very intently. When Roy finished Chavez said quite a bit about the SOA. He had obviously done his homework. Then he moved on to talk about the writings of John Kenneth Galbraith. And so the program went on and on.
Chavez continues to be an ego-obsessed narcissist who doesn’t mind using his cult of personality to promote a particular political and social agenda and he’s not above taking direct, anti-democratic action against his enemies and to maintain his own power. So what else is new in the world of politics?
He is also “the peoples’ choice” in Venezuela’s fair elections. This week Chavez’ party swept most states, according to The Guardian, in Venezuela’s regional elections. The record turnout of 65% among 16.8 million registered voters shows the passion and antipathy elicited by this larger-than-life personality.
The Frontline show is tough, fair, and shows Chavez with his good points and his bad points. “The documentarians credit Chávez with being the first president in the 50-year history of Venezuelan democracy to elevate themes of poverty and social justice to the top of national discussion,” writes Montgomery. “But they suggest that his methods for addressing those issues have been uneven and over-hyped.”.