Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Responding to the "The Hugo Chavez Show"

In case you haven't seen it, take a look at PBS's Frontline TV-documentary on Hugo Chavez. There is a lot of good footage, information and some of the interviews are interesting.

That said, I think the documentary is a case-study in what is typically wrong with characterizations of Venezuela (indeed, with almost all of the Left governments and movements in Latin America) in our domestic Media (one might as well include Britain also).

Let me preface all of this by directing your attention to the infamous NYTimes editorial that, in complicity with the lies of the opposition military coup plotters, praised the (actually false) 'departure' of Chavez and the installment of a
neoliberal military regime by force in which all of the democratically-elected officials and representatives of Chavez's party would be removed from office.

The title of the PBS show is instructive: "The Hugo Chavez Show". The mistake that the documentary makes over and over is to slip into conflations of large-scale economic and political forces with Chavez the person. Frequently, supporters of the government or of the
PSUV or the "Revolution" are characterized as people with nothing more than intense emotional investment in Chavez qua person. There is a lot of focus on Chavez's show "Alo Presidente", his antics, his speeches, etc. There seems to me to be no problem with this necessarily, however, its insidious precisely insofar as these looks at him (qua person, public figure) are used as arguments against the policies of his government and the anti-capitalist project. I'll say more on this in a bit.

The interviewees end up making up more or less a chorus. There is 'center-left'
neoliberal Teodoro Petkoff who is supposedly given legitimacy as a 'left critic' of Chavez since he used to be a Communist earlier in the 70s. No further context is given for how to situate him in relation to the Bolivarian Revolution. We also hear from "Journalists and Venezuelans who know Chavez well". Jon Lee Anderson of the New Yorker is interviewed, as is biographer Alberto Barrera, Phil Gunson of the Economist, and former VP Jimenez who has since broken with Chavez.... (one was left dissapointed that arch-hack Simon Romero and reps from the Financial Times and WSJ weren't present as well). We also hear from an opposition goon who was a former finance minister in the early 90s who, every single time he's put before the camera, insinuates with a wry smile that the US should stop purchasing Venezuelan oil since that would topple Chavez "in a matter of weeks". (hint, hint! americans!) He extols the virtues of PDVSA before Chavez and repeats the familiar capitalist dogma that removing elites is tantamount to removing the 'experts' who are the only ones who know how to run things. We can smell his hatred of participatory democracy a mile away: let the indigent masses do the drudge-work, they aren't capable of doing much else without the expertise of capitalists and managers.

What we don't hear in the documentary, is the voice of one single intellectual who actually believes that what is happening on the ground in Venezuela is worth defending. Nothing. We could have heard from Tariq Ali, Eva Golinger, Greg Wilpert, Forrest Hylton, or any number of prominent Left intellectuals and journalists who would dare to defend the project unapollogetically (yet, not therefore uncritically). The tone of the entire piece is one of suspicion and one in which we are encouraged to presuppose that everything about what's going on there is misguided. Therefore, when things are pointed out about the situation that aren't all bad, they can be safely let out in the open without having to worry about sounding, *gasp* fair or worse, sympathetic. The point I'm making about the tone is that it seems crafted to always leave a large amount of outs whenever it presents something that looks appealing about Venezuela. This usually takes the form of presenting 'good' elements of the Revolution as ones with good intentions, but practically useless or failing.

There are no broad strokes to contextualize the movement, facile imperialist buzzwords like 'anti-American' are thrown around copiously without qualification, and everything about the Revolution is characterized in terms of a top-down decree from Chavez to 'subsidize' something. We are told that he 'subsidizes anti-American governments' like Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador and Cuba, which reeks of Heritage-Foundation-
esque propaganda. Moreover, the presentation of Chavez's relation to Castro is played up and used to hint at his authoritarian fantasies that have yet to fully manifest themselves. We shouldn't forget that the opposition has used this line as a talking point for quite some time: "Chavez wants Venezuela to be exactly like Cuba!" PBS seems to have cribbed it right from the headlines of opposition outlets.

One thing I found disturbing was that the documentary rarely mentioned figures about turnout, margins of victory, or democratic mandate for the Revolution. During talk of Chavez's loss during the push for Constitutional reform in 2007, we hear almost nothing about the statistical dynamics of the result. The "por ahora" slogan is spun as a "threat" that the government will "punish democratic decision-makers who buck their will", rather than an injunction to continue fighting for the reforms and social transformation for which the government stands. We heard nothing of the turnout figures which clearly showed that the opposition picked up virtually no more votes in absolute terms than they garnered in 2006, but merely benefited from lower turnout.

The entire discussion of is one-sided. The bullshit about it being a 'free speech issue' is gobbled up, since it so neatly fits in with what we are encouraged to think prior to hearing any facts about Venezuela: in the words of our media, Venezuela is ruled by "a thug", "paranoiac", "dictatorial", a "ruinous and radical leftist demagogue", who is "autocratic." The Economist probably has the rights to this smash-hit tune among the Anglo-American business press.

We hear nothing about RCTV's direct involvement with the 2002 coup.

And on the topic of the coup, the most critical thing that the documentary offers us is a quote by a Chavista official that the US Government might, potentially, have given the coup its blessing, or possibly even helped. That insinuation was left at that. This isn't being 'objective', this is deception. There is absolutely no way to maintain that the US govt did not give the coup its 'blessing'... look at its public statements before and after. They were unambiguously anti-Chavez and pro-opposition and they immediately recognized the illegitimate government the second it went on private television and proclaimed that it had taken power. Moreover, US involvement with the opposition in terms of giving aid and support to the coup-plotters is well documented. This isn't some crazy, out-of-the-blue anomaly to US foreign policy in Latin America, but a continuation of a time honored tradition wherein the US participates in violent overthrows of democratically elected Left governments. A little historical context might have been helpful here, but none was in the offering. The US foreign policy aparatus, let us not forget, is a shinging beacon of freedom that inspires the whole world. And we betray this Absolute Truth only at our own peril, and on pain of succumbing to 'anti-Americanism'. (For a far more extensive and sober documentary look at the 2002 coup, check this video out).

After the coverage of the coup in the documentary, one is left puzzled how Chavez came back to power. They don't really give you enough information to understand the dynamics that forced the coup to fail, other than insinuating that the slum-dwellers from the shacks of Caracas came down from their perch to protest. This is atrocious coverage of the event. Nothing is said about the rank-and-file loyalty of soldiers in the military who refused to go along with the plot. Nothing is said about the conduct of the opposition leaders during the coup, the RCTV involvement with the coup, etc. There is no moralistic condemnation of the coup in the way that there is throughout the entire documentary about how Chavez silences dissent, etc. This is bullshit.

The only ardent pro-Chavez interviewees are slum-dwellers who are made to look as though they are nothing more than uneducated adorers of a man whose policies they cannot comprehend. Leave the commentary to the learned light-skinned men who know better.

The last quarter of the documentary is devoted to showing the failure of all of Chavez's policies. We are given various examples, all very specific. We are given no wider economic/political backdrop against which to judge these developments, but nonetheless encouraged to draw broad conclusions from these examples. We are given no data about how much social spending has increased, how the programs have fared in terms of what existed before them, what the shortcoming might be attributed to, how they might be addressed, etc. We get none of that. But we get insinuations that bottom-up cooperatives are a bad idea because workers cannot self-govern themselves (silly socialists... you're supposed to leave that to the experts, the capitalists and managers!), we get insinuations that the uneducated poor are the only ones propping up a 'failed government' because they 'fear things could be worse'. We also get a spiel about "law and order" in which the problems of crime in Venezuela are really bad (dare I say we are encouraged to draw conclusions between Chavez's urban poor constituents and the 'law and order' hoopla?). No explanations, no comparative figures, no context... just the insinuation that rising crime has something to do with the Chavez regime. It doesn't really matter if they intended for this line of argument to coalesce with the racist and conservative opposition's rhetoric, to be purveyors of this sort of narrative in ignorance of what is frequently said and insinuated is already to be give a nod to the reactionaries.

Amid all of these complaints, not one example of how programs have worked is given. Not one figure about increased social spending, education programs, etc. Not one example of a program that has worked, against the expectations and wishes of the editorial boards of the NYTimes and the Economist and the Western capitalist press. Nothing.

Even the documentary's assessment of the most recent election results, which in many ways represented a small victory for the US-backed opposition, was billed as a case of increasing authoritarianism. We are told, ominously without any further backing that opposition leaders were 'banned' from running for election (the elections were observed by hundreds of international bodies and they all deemed them fair and free). Then we are told that 17 of 22 PSUV governors won, as though this was a bogus victory given the collusion mentioned in the previous sentence. Yet despite the opposition victories, the procedural fairness of the election, the high turnout, etc. The folks at PBS thought nothing of mentioning the US-government's involvement with the opposition and the recent elections. Pathetic, uncritical analysis.
I just read, according to Eva Gollinger, that the U.S. Agency for International Development poured $4.7 million into opposition groups for the electoral campaign. This is hardly surprising. Washington is backing the reactionary oligarchic opposition leaders in Bolivia as well. Why would we expect anything less? PBS says nothing about US invovlement or where their sympathies lie with respect to Latin American political and social movements on the Left.

Concerning Chavez's government, there's plenty to be critical of, especially from the perspective of the Left. But regarding this documentary, the entire conclusion you seem encouraged to arrive at is that Chavez is everything the mainstream Anglophone media says about him (he's dictatorial, a caudillo, a strongman, a demagogue, etc.). The viewer is almost led to assume that what the country perhaps needs instead, is a return of the rule of 'educated', light-skinned, enlightened elites who have the know-how, expertise and faith in neoliberal capitalism to make things run right. The film includes a few moralizing moments where the inequality and squalor that many Venezolanos live in is mentioned, yet we are given no evidence that there is a political solution to this social injustice. We get nothing critical of neoliberalism, of the previous regime's policies, or any mention of North American imperialism in Latin America and its long history. We aren't offered any explanations about how this unequal state of affairs in Venezuela came about.

I found this documentary disappointing.


Arvilla said...

Have you seen the latest Bond movie yet? Surprisingly enough, there's some pretty strong commentary about U.S. (and western) interventionism in Latin America. I can't remember the line word for word, but there was even something like, "You Americans are so afraid of anything that isn't capitalism made to benefit you that you have to destroy any chance of hope or change any socialist leader brings about."

Pretty sad if a James Bond movie is providing a more measured political response than a PBS documentary...

Wes McLachlan, UK said...

Saw the documentary and agree with a lot of your commentary but at the same time it is disappointing to see the apparent personality cult elements to Chavez exposed. Though examples are selective the idea that "I am right and my subordinates are responsible for any errors that occur" is at best unattractive.

I remain a Chavez fan and feel that his timing of his death was a wise move. Those who follow him will now be free to build the revolution he proposed based on its overall success for the people. In such circumstances outcomes will take precedence over charisma. The new President looks reassuringly boring.