Chavez: a man of the spotlight and shadows

By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / November 25, 2008
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'The Hugo Chavez Show," the title of tonight's "Frontline," is doubly apt. It airs tonight on Channel 2 at 9.

So much of the controversial Venezuelan president's political success has sprung from his being a natural performer. The camera can hardly get enough of Chavez's moonfaced animation, and he definitely can't get enough of the camera.

That's plain from "Alo Presidente" ("Hello, President"). There really is a Hugo Chavez show. Every Sunday, he goes on Venezuelan television for anywhere from five to eight hours. He takes questions from audience members, most of them wearing the pinkish-reddish shirts of the Bolivarians, the populist movement Chavez leads.

Chavez also can be seen riding a horse, driving a tractor, wearing a hard hat in a factory, walking down the street singing (he has quite a good voice), and, in general, behaving like a chunky, clean-shaven Fidel Castro (whom Chavez calls his "idol").

In tonight's broadcast, Rafael Simon Jimenez, a former Chavez ally in the Venezuelan parliament, likens "the way [Chavez] talks, how he combines truths with half-truths" to the magical realism of the Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

That can make Chavez an elusive figure to pin down, and any treatment of him runs three risks. They are, in decreasing order of Norteamericano likelihood, demonizing him, dismissing him as a clown, or treating him like a hero. "He's easily caricatured," points out New Yorker correspondent Jon Lee Anderson in tonight's broadcast. "He can seem buffoonish."

Ofra Bikel, who wrote, directed, and produced "The Hugo Chavez Show," manages to avoid all three pitfalls. We hear from journalists, academics, Venezuelan political leaders, average citizens. Chavez was not interviewed for the show, though we see him in plentiful news footage and, of course, excerpts from "Alo Presidente." The result is an even-handed, unillusioned view of a highly perplexing figure.

Chavez is also a not-insignificant figure: the United States buys 1.5 million barrels of Venezuelan oil a day (60 percent of the country's output). His concern for Venezuela's poor is unquestioned. His capacity to do much more for them than spout rhetoric is less certain, as is his dedication to Venezuela's democratic process.

It was, in fact, Chavez's involvement in an attempted military coup, in 1992, that first brought him to public attention. The paratroop officer went on television to announce the surrender of the portion of forces he was leading, which effectively ended the coup. Chavez went to prison for 2 1/2 years, but a star was born. He was elected president in 1998.

The past decade has been turbulent, to say the least. There have been 130 Cabinet changes in nine years. Chavez survived an attempted coup in 2002. He won a recall election two years later and was reelected in 2006 with the largest margin of victory since 1958, when democratic elections came to Venezuela. Emboldened by his triumph, Chavez tried to change the constitution by plebiscite in 2007. The opposition barely defeated him. Chavez's slogan - plastered on billboards all over Caracas - became "Por Ahora. . .": for now.

"We have never had a president like President Chavez," a community organizer says in tonight's broadcast. That's one thing all sides can agree on.

Mark Feeney can be reached at

FRONTLINE: The Hugo Chavez Show On: WGBH, Channel 2

Time: Tonight 9-10:30

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