November 25, 2008
Sometimes investigative journalism is overrated. When PBS' Frontline went to Venezuela to do a documentary on President Hugo Chávez, Fidel Castro's heir-apparent as gadfly to the gringos, staffers were nervous about whether they'd be able to dig up enough of a story. ''We had been told that we should not expect to meet with him,'' recalls one. ``We needn't have worried. President Chávez, we found out, was everywhere.''
Especially on his weekly television program, Alo, Presidente, where Chávez sings, dances, hands out prizes, breaks treaties, threatens invasions and launches crackpot diatribes that can last up to eight hours if he's in a kicky mood. It's sort of a high-stakes Sábado Gigante, where losers can find 10 battalions of the Venezuelan army massed on the border at the end of the show.
It's the clips from Alo, Presidente that make Frontline's report, The Hugo Chávez Show, such a withering indictment of Venezuela's megalomaniacal Marxist ruler. His mendacity, his bullying, his flight-of-the-bumblebee intellect, all are front and center on Chávez's program.
Watch in wonder as a meandering disquisition on crime in Caracas ends with a dumbfounded Venezuelan general being ordered -- right there on-camera -- to prepare to invade Colombia. Or as one of Chávez's kindergarten tantrums on economics (we're poor, the gringos are rich, the bastards must have robbed us!) erupts into a withdrawal from the International Monetary Fund (quietly reversed after the show when some brave soul among Chávez's entourage warned that the ungrateful IMF would expect its $30 billion loan back).
The Hugo Chávez Show traces Chávez's fascination with the media back to 1992, when he appeared on national television while launching a military coup against an elected civilian government and somehow managed to make himself look like a peacemaker while holding the presidential palace at gunpoint. The coup failed (''for now,'' Chávez memorably added as he surrendered on TV), but six years later he was elected president.
Since then, Chávez has been an omnipresence on Venezuelan TV. He uses it to taunt and trash enemies like George Bush (''The devil!'') and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe (``He heads a narco-government, he's a lackey of American empire, he's a subordinate of Bush!''). He uses it to extol his buddy and mentor Fidel Castro (always, mysteriously, in English).
And he uses it to bully his critics -- not just the ''oligarchs'' and ''Yanqui sympathizers'' he accuses of conspiring endlessly against him, but any among Venezuela's poor who dare to question Chávez's social-engineering schemes. One of the most revealing exchanges in The Hugo Chávez Show concerns the president's plan to relocate the entire town of Federico Quiroz to a remote mountain area that Chávez has proclaimed as the site of ''Venezuela's first socialist city.'' A delegation from Federico Quiroz is assembled to express the citizens' gratitude -- but when one man timidly says that most of them would prefer to stay in Federico Quiroz, Chávez savagely berates him: ``That's a lie, brother!''
The citizens of Federico Quiroz are quite sensible to be suspicious of Chávez's offer of a new town. The Hugo Chávez Show visits a number of his most-ballyhooed projects, from ghost-town housing developments to bankrupt co-ops, that collapsed into ruin as soon as the president lost interest. And it shows him blithely sidestepping blame by bringing members of his government onto Alo, Presidente, where they're browbeaten with accusations of incompetence and corruption as the studio audience cheers. The lesson is clear, notes one Venezuelan political scientist: ``The president makes the good decisions, while the ministers make the mistakes.''
The humiliating televised confessions to which Chávez's ministers are reduced are disquietingly reminiscent of those of Cuban dissidents at the baseball-stadium showtrials that Castro routinely staged for television in the first days after he came to power. That points to the one minor flaw in the otherwise excellent The Hugo Chávez Show, the repeated claim that Chávez's media freakery represents something new in Latin American politics. ''He''s probably the world's first virtual president in the age of the communications revolution,'' says New Yorker reporter Jon Lee Anderson in an interview in the show.