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On Tuesday evening, the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) will carry a 90-minute review of the presidency of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. As the show progresses, it quickly becomes apparent to the viewer why critics often refer to PBS as the “Petroleum Broadcasting System.” Venezuela has huge oil reserves. Big Oil provides much of the funding for PBS programs. And it would not be wise to offend this source of cash, regardless of how greedy and despicable the oil barons might be.
Before we get on with show, let me remind you that state and municipal elections were held in Venezuela on Sunday, with the pro-Chávez United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) winning gubernatorial seats in 17 states and the opposition winning in 5 states. No election was held in the state of Amazonas, which is on a different election cycle. The governor of that state is a Chavez supporter. The results of 328 municipal elections have not yet been announced.
After the results had been tallied, President Chávez commended Venezuelans for their participation in the elections, in which 65 percent of registered voters cast their ballots. Chávez said, "I recognize opposition victories; I hope they do the same." In 2002, they did not recognize his victories and mounted a coup with the enthusiastic support of the Bush administration. The coup failed, and Pedro Carmona, the heroic 48-hour coup leader and president, ran away to Florida.
With these recent events in mind, viewers will be prepared for Tuesday night’s broadcast of Frontline on PBS. This episode is called “The Hugo Chávez Show.” It was written, directed, and produced by Ofra Bikel, the winner of uncountable awards for documentaries.
In an interview that complements the show, Bikel drops hints about her opinion of Chávez and his political style. Chávez, she says, is “so outrageously rude and says insane things about President Bush, calling him ‘donkey,’ ‘Mr. Danger,’ ‘the devil.’”
I would agree with Ms. Bikel that these statements are rude, but they’re far from insane. I like “Mr. Danger” best of all, but others might prefer “the devil.” It’s all a matter of taste.
Bikel is upset that she couldn’t interview President Chávez. “… you can manage to do a lot of things as far as filming is concerned,” she says, “because the situation is so chaotic, and no one pays attention to the rules—until it has to do with Chávez. Not only is he incredibly well-protected, but you can’t film anything that has to do with him unless it’s a march or rally.”
This is an overstatement. It also reveals that Bikel is unaware that because of repeated threats against his life, Chávez now takes special precautions. Prior to the 2002 coup attempt, he moved about freely and announced his itinerary in advance. Now he still goes out every day, but the schedule is no longer released ahead of time.
Bikel believes she was denied access to the president because she was viewed as “anti-Chávez.” How terribly the Venezuelan authorities have treated her. And she has all those awards. What were they thinking?
So much for the interview. You can read the rest for yourself at the PBS website. Let me give you a few samples from the documentary, which consists almost entirely of interviews with objective journalists, biased journalists, the president’s enemies, and various other observers. It also includes many excerpts from Chávez’s Sunday TV broadcasts, Aló Presidente.
Bikel, Big Oil, foreign and domestic enemies, et al. don’t like Aló Presidente. Chávez doesn’t obey the normal rules for presidential appearances. He answers questions phoned in by citizens. He sings. He improvises. He talks a long time. He rides a tractor on a grain farm. He rides a horse on a cattle farm. He walks down deserted Sunday streets in Caracas with the mayor and other officials, discussing the problem of street crime. Wouldn’t it be better if he walked up to a podium like George Bush and said “nucular”?
After the walk, he appears with an audience and moves on to a discussion of Colombia’s president, Alvaro Uribe, who has ordered an invasion of Ecuador to kill member of the FARC. He says Uribe is a criminal, a mobster, a liar, a paramilitary thug, and a lackey of George Bush. Regrettably, there is much evidence for all these charges. (See my CounterPunch articles of 4/1/2008 and 7/8/2008.)
One of the show’s guests states that Chávez had once said that he wanted to get out of the International Monetary Fund, but someone advised him on that occasion that Venezuela lacked the money to get out, and Chávez never talked about it again. Actually, Venezuela withdrew from both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in the second and third quarters of 2007, paying off all debts to both of those grasping arms of the Washington Consensus. (Ven-Global News, 9/30/2008)
The program inevitably starts crawling around inside the head of Hugo Chávez. This is often a waste of time for psychiatrists and always a failure for amateurs. While engaged in this nonsense, Bikel and Company misses one of the most obvious things about the man, the color of his skin. The president of Venezuela is a mestizo, unlike any other president in the country’s history. The oligarchy that has ruled until now is mostly as white as the sickly face of Pedro Carmona on the day when he learned that his presidency would be the shortest in history.
The mass media in Venezuela is controlled by the rich white elite. Day after day, it uses racist terms to describe Chávez and others like him. Only one newspaper and the two state-owned TV stations carry the real news of the Chávez government. One private station, RCTV, lost its broadcast license because it stridently aired its support of the 2002 coup while that coup was actually taking place. RCTV is now available only on cable. Frontline provides the sad story of RCTV, but fails to mention its acts of treason.
The majority of the population in Venezuela is of either mestizo or African descent, people who’ve never before had a president who looked remotely like them. They don’t care if he sings, rides a tractor, or talks for hours. They won’t follow him into a dictatorship, but he isn’t headed in that direction. Frontline cleverly implies that he is.
The U.S. corporate media loves to tell us that Venezuela is about to become another Cuba. The Washington Post suffers from delusions unheard of since the yellow journalism of the Spanish-American War era. Chávez admires Fidel Castro because he overthrew the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista and has now withstood U.S. interference for half a century. But both men know that their respective revolutions are entirely different.
The members of the Bush administration say that Chávez is undemocratic. What comedians they are. Has Venezuela invaded another country, bombed its towns and cities, hanged its president, killed thousands of civilians, and turned millions of others into refugees? Has Chávez denied prisoners of war all rights, allowed them to be tortured, and broken all the customary international agreements about the treatment of POWs?
Chávez has done none of these things. He even pardoned the men who plotted the coup, after which many of them immediately began verbally attacking him again. I could cite many other falsehoods in Bikel’s fairytale, but I’ve said all I can bear.
Chávez wants nothing more than a mixed economy in which the profits from huge industries are used to benefit all citizens, not just the white descendants of European conquerors. The Chávez government pays the owners for any industries it nationalizes. And it has no interest in the Mom and Pop café down the street. Frontline won’t tell you any of this.
But Chávez does want PDVSA, the national oil company, to serve the interests of all Venezuelans, not merely those of the private club that controlled it before the election of Chávez. After the members of that club went on “strike,” Chavez fired them and hired new people. He wants all citizens to join the club.
Is that really too much to ask?
PATRICK IRELAN is a retired high-school teacher. He is the author of A Firefly in the Night (Ice Cube Press) and Central Standard: A Time, a Place, a Family (University of Iowa Press). You can contact him at email@example.com.