November 25, 2008
When Venezuelans want to know what's on their president's mind, they tune in to the surreal intersection of politics, entertainment and megalomania that is Hugo Chávez's weekly television show, "Aló, Presidente" ("Hello, President"). There is no script, no timetable. Lasting as long as Chávez feels like it -- at least five hours, sometimes eight -- the show is public policy improvised and enacted on live TV.
One episode last spring began with a meditation on crime in Caracas, segued to disagreements with neighboring Colombia and concluded with Chávez singling out his defense minister in the studio audience, then ordering the surprised-looking commander to dispatch 10 battalions to the Colombian border immediately.
It makes for excellent television, and the best part of the "Frontline" documentary "The Hugo Chávez Show," which airs at 10 tonight on Channel 26, is the skillful use of footage from "Aló, Presidente" to frame this exploration of the controversial leader.
The narrative strategy might have sprung from necessity -- "Frontline" was told not to expect an interview with Chávez -- but director Ofra Bikel's instincts were sound. We've already seen Chávez sit down to talk last year on the ABC newsmagazine "20/20." 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.
The weekly political variety show -- imagine George W. Bush with Jay Leno's microphone, hitting the road like the late Charles Kuralt, counting down like Keith Olbermann, picking fights like Bill O'Reilly and thinking out loud like Andy Rooney -- also allows "Frontline" to make a larger point about Chávez: His presidency is a form of performance. The media helped make him, and he manipulates the media in return.
"He is probably the world's first virtual president in the age of the communication revolution," New Yorker writer Jon Lee Anderson says in the documentary. "He obeys none of the normal ground rules of what is expected of a head of state or, for that matter, a public official on television."
This new take on the leader is a helpful piece of the Chávez puzzle. It's a third dimension to the already fixed images of him as either a socialist champion of the poor or a socialist threat to international stability.
"Frontline" takes us back to the birth of the media star: In his first high-profile television appearance, in 1992, he was a young army officer whose attempted coup against the government had just collapsed. At such moments, most failed Latin American revolutionaries might be expected to be preoccupied with thoughts of flight or a firing squad. Chávez got himself in front of cameras and admitted that his revolutionary movement had failed, but just "por ahora" -- for now. The nation thrilled to such telegenic audacity.
The media loved him during his rise to democratically elected power in 1998, but then some outlets became disenchanted. "Frontline" recounts how, in response, the now sometimes media-unfriendly president refused last year to renew the license of a television station that was critical of the government, putting it out of business. On "Aló, Presidente," Chávez holds a critical newspaper story up to the camera and lambastes the editor at length.
"Frontline" sends its own cameras into the streets of Caracas to test the self-portrayal of the larger-than-life star of "Aló, Presidente." Shots of a glittering mall juxtaposed with aerial shots of vast slums of shanties covering hilltops dramatize how much of Chávez's self-styled Bolivarian revolution is yet to be done. The documentary makers find slum dwellers and activists who credit Chávez's policies with improving their lives. But they also interview members of worker-owned cooperative businesses established by Chávez who say that many grand plans have gone unfulfilled.
The reporting is tough but not completely damning of Chávez. 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. But they suggest that his methods for addressing those issues have been uneven and over-hyped.
It's too bad the program's narrative arc is constructed to climax with a national referendum last December, when voters rejected a constitutional rewrite favored by Chávez. That's old news. Just this week Chávez's allies scored victories in state elections.
But this portrait transcends news events. President-elect Barack "no-drama" Obama will discover that his Venezuelan counterpart is all drama, all the time. "Chávez is in urgent need of an epic," Chávez biographer Alberto Barrera says in the documentary. "He needs great enemies" in order to "maintain such a high temperature and keep saying, 'I'm a great revolutionary.' "