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The Ombudsman Column

Heeere's Hugo

While I was away during the Thanksgiving holiday, a couple of related things happened. Venezuela held important state and local elections around the country on Sunday, Nov. 23, and PBS's Frontline series broadcast a 90-minute documentary about that country's controversial leader, President Hugo Chavez, on Nov. 25.

If you missed it and are interested in a complicated, charismatic character who is a socialist, a fierce critic of U.S. foreign policy and the Bush administration, in particular, yet who sells 60 percent of his country's oil here, who is a hero to many millions of Venezuelans and a democratically-elected dictator/strongman to many millions of others, take a look at it online.

The program produced only a handful of letters in the ombudsman's inbox, most of them using very strong language to criticize the film as "a disgusting caricature" and "diatribe" against Chavez and the "reality" of Venezuela, as one viewer from New Jersey put it. A sampling of these letters and a response from Frontline are printed below. A very much larger collection of letters with many more diverse reactions and perspectives — from Americans and Venezuelans — can also be found on the Frontline Web site.

This program was also widely reviewed in news outlets in this country, and some abroad as well, and of the dozen or so that I've read, all were quite positive, with some critical aspects pointed out here and there. One of the more extensive, and positive, reviews of the broadcast from outside the U.S. appeared in Toronto's The Globe and Mail newspaper.

The film, by Frontline producer Ofra Bikel, is titled "The Hugo Chavez Show." The title is appropriate because a great deal of the footage — and the insight into this media-savvy leader — is taken from Chavez's own, weekly, and seemingly endless, five-to-eight-hour television show, "Alo, Presidente," or Hello, President. For younger readers who may not recognize it, the headline on this column comes from the famous line used for decades to introduce NBC's late-night talk show host Johnny Carson. Only Chavez is not the host. He is the show.

As a Viewer, I was Grateful

Like most Frontline programs, as a viewer, I was grateful for this one, even though there were some areas and points that I was left wondering about. There is only the briefest mention, for example, of the "strong rumors" that the opposition "had the blessing, if not the help, of the United States" in what would ultimately turn out to be an unsuccessful coup attempt to oust Chavez in 2002. Frontline officials argue, in an online response to some viewers, that this issue "has been debated endlessly. The question is what was the level of U.S. approval or participation? We didn't want to get into the role of the U.S. — which gets involved in a lot of unsavory business in Latin America. Investigating this probably deserves a separate program of its own."

Now that's an interesting response, and if it's worth a separate program, it seems to me to have been worth at least a little more exploration of the lingering impact of those "rumors" in Venezuela these days. The U.S. denied involvement but the perception has helped Chavez at home and elsewhere in Latin America. He was re-elected by the widest margin ever in 2006.

The film documents quite well "how hollow," as Globe and Mail reviewer Kate Taylor, put it, "is Chavez's promise to spread the oil wealth through the nation, largely because of his government's incompetence. Housing projects are announced, but builders go unpaid; the unemployed are trained and encouraged to form co-operatives, but they are never taught the basic business skills to run them; a model socialist city is purposed for a remote mountaintop and the President simply will not listen to a community organizer who tells him the slum dwellers do not want to move there."

On the other hand, I was left wondering whether there aren't some specific and sizeable success stories and subsidies that also flowed out of all this oil wealth for what is still a very large, impoverished segment of the population that didn't get enough attention in the film. I don't know the answer to that, yet if they are there, they will be a factor in Chavez's stated intention — despite being repudiated by voters in 2007 when a constitutional reform that would have allowed him to do away with term limits was narrowly rejected — to seek an additional six-year term in 2012. He has been in office since 1999 and that 2007 defeat on ending term limits was the opposition's biggest victory thus far.

Too Early to See the End?

"The Hugo Chavez Show" more or less ends with that 2007 repudiation and Chavez's grudging acceptance of the result, but accompanied with the phrase "for now," meaning he is not through yet. He may be right. The results of the elections last month that were held a few days before this film aired showed that Chavez-backed candidates, according to the McClatchy News Service, won 58 percent of the overall vote and 17 of the 22 state contests and about 80 percent of the mayoral races. On the other hand, opposition party candidates won the three most populous states, two small ones and the mayor's office in the two biggest cities, Caracas and Maracaibo; their best electoral showing in eight years.

Several American newspapers and magazines do a good job of reporting, in timely and frequently in-depth fashion, on Chavez, who controls the largest oil reserves outside the Middle East. And in September 2006, he appeared as a guest and sat for a lengthy interview on Tavis Smiley's show on PBS. Earlier that year, Smiley had been part of a group visiting Chavez in Venezuela that was discussed in an Ombudsman's Column. Last year, ABC's "20/20" news magazine also interviewed Chavez as part of a segment on his rule, and ABC's Ted Koppel did a brief interview with him in 2005.

But for the most part, this controversial leader and neighbor is reduced to sound-bite coverage on those relatively rare occasions when he or his actions break into television news schedules. That is why Frontline's extensive portrait was so gratifying, in my view. This is not Chavez sitting in a studio. Indeed, Chavez did not grant an interview to Frontline. Rather this is an on-the-scene recording of political skills and personality that is quite unique and very much worth understanding no matter what you think about his policies.

There is plenty of criticism of Chavez in the program, and perhaps some more diversity could have been sought among those interviewed. Nevertheless, this is an informative, well-reported and documented program and it captures the ambivalence powerfully in spots, as in the final segment when one of Chavez's critics says, "History will have to acknowledge that Chavez has turned the social question into the great Venezuelan theme" and that "he rescued the hidden pain of an impoverished country and put it on the table."

As David Montgomery wrote in The Washington Post, "What Americans have been missing is a direct encounter with the temperamental, charming, fierce, cruel, seductive, whimsical and overwhelming personality that comes through on 'Alo, Presidente.'" I would add that what also comes through is the sense of a resilient and, for many, courageous democracy in Venezuela, with lots of open political criticism under difficult and sometimes threatening conditions.

Here Are the Letters

What a disgusting caricature of a very real Latin America reality. It seems unbelievable that such a serious program as Frontline can dedicate such diatribe to a state leader and a continental figure such as Mr. Chavez. It is important to note that most of your commentary follows the line of the critical American point of view rather than an international or geopolitical perspective. To reduce the national and international impact of Hugo Chavez to the infamous bilateral relationships with the US and/or to the shortcomings of the Bolivarian revolution is to misrepresent the complex Latin American experience. PBS should be ashamed and Frontline should apologize to your Latin American viewers with a brain. You did nothing to portray the many faces and difficulties of a monumental change such as the Bolivarian Revolution in the history of our sub-continent.

Jimmy Herrera Ariza, Jersey City, NJ

The show PBS just aired The Hugo Chavez Show violates almost every one of your Public Broadcasting Service Editorial Standards and Policies. How? Well, to begin with, I cannot tell if you were duped by the Opposition supporters interviewed in this program or you just know nothing of the facts about Venezuela. I felt like I was watching a propaganda film made in North Korea. You fail to mention that the questions Chavez was posing to mayors and other Government officials on Alo Presidente were primarily from citizens from those communities calling in, not from him. The framework of the program was absurd, making it seem as though the Missions have failed, making it seem as though Chavez is a megalomaniac addicted to media, what fiction! I could go on but space here does not allow. I will no longer support PBS, your standards are horrid. I encourage others to ignore this whitewashing of the coup against Venezuela's Democratic President, a whitewash of USAID and the NED's involvement of this coup, and the subsequent lies made up because US corporations want to exploit Venezuela's oil. Without looking into these matters Mr. Getler, as an ombudsman, you have zero credibility and it is you who has to live with that fact. PBS lies and this garbage show is proof.

Jeff Schneider, Providence, RI

I was shocked and appalled at the PBS/Frontline special on Hugo Chavez. It was so one-sided against Chavez and provided such a distorted picture of his administrative actions, as well as the actions of those who wish to overthrow his administration. How about mentioning the CIA's role in Venezuela before and after Chavez came to power?

I suggest you and the producer of the program watch the documentary, "The Revolution will not be Televised," about the 2002 coup to remove Chavez, which most of the world knows was aided by the US government/CIA. The press from many other countries widely reported the U.S. influence in the coup, which Frontline glosses over or distorts the general feeling in Venezuela that the U.S. government was directly involved in the attempted thwarting of a democratically elected leader.

Also recall Pat Robertson's statement that Chavez ought to be assassinated. Scholar Nicolas Kozloff's book "Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S." begins with Robertson's idea of illegally taking care of someone he and his ilk do not like and paints quite a different picture of Chavez. Why shouldn't Chavez be allowed to challenge the U.S. foreign policy of installing Venezuelan presidents who work for the best interests of multi-national oil companies and provide the U.S. with cheap, plentiful oil. If it is anyone's oil, it is the oil of the Venezuelan people. Chavez has paid companies when he has nationalized them, a major fact the Frontline doc. omitted, and has used some of the oil money to recover lands stolen from the poor and given some to local municipalities for these communities to decide how to provide for their people.

The U.S. government and its citizens can take a lesson of how to operate democratically by seeing how local councils use money from the Venezuelan national government. See Yes! magazines back issues for articles on how land is being redistributed to the poor, from whom it was stolen by foreigners and the elites of Venezuela.

PBS's Chavez program could have mentioned some of the things I, on my own, have researched and the evidence is overwhelming that PBS's program was intentionally biased against Chavez. The producer admits she does not like him. She interviews people who don't like him. Is PBS not funded by Exxon-Mobil? If so, could that have had an effect on the bias reporting since Big Oil does not like the Chavez government's practice of sovereignty over its resources, rather than allow Oil companies and the private sector unfettered access to petroleum.

I will be surprised if you post my rough piece.

Portland, OR

Your Hugo Chavez Show is a hard work piece. But it lacks many key facts that can bring a closer view to the reality he represents (head of a corruption network), how he acts (as a genocide), what he achieves (misery, specially for the future generations, who will be facing a broken country, a divided society, a nation that lost many key years in its path for development). Specially, please do not let your viewers think that what happened on April 11th, was a coup, that's far away from the real feelings of whom was there . . . Enjoy your freedom, someday we will too.

Andres C., Caracas, Venezuela

Here's Frontline's Response

The following response is from Catherine Wright, story editor at Frontline. Wright actually wrote to each of the critical viewers and what follows is a compilation of her points.

"With regard to comments about U.S. involvement in the 2002 attempted coup, we did note in the film that there were strong rumors of U.S. involvement and this has been debated endlessly, however the role, if any, of the U.S. in the 2002 coup attempt was outside the scope of this particular film. Investigating a possible U.S. role in the coup attempt and any attempt to influence politics in Venezuela deserves a separate program of its own.

"We're sorry that (some viewers) felt that the documentary was one-sided, presenting only the view of those who oppose President Hugo Chavez. We disagree. We do feel that the documentary was a tough-minded, fair report on the president and his government. While we interviewed a number of Chavez's opponents and critics, we also took considerable time to speak with those who support him and his policies, and feel that he has lived up to the promises he has made as leader of Venezuela and as a voice for the people. I expect that in the end we will have to agree to disagree about the portrait painted in the documentary.

"We are streaming the film, in English and in Spanish, on our web site and the program has generated a vibrant, impassioned discussion — in both English and Spanish — from viewers. I would invite you to visit the viewer discussion (in English and Spanish) and see for yourself the robust conversation that has sprung up. We've received many responses from Venezuelan viewers, and their reactions are split evenly between those who feel the film accurately portrays the complicated political situation in Venezuela and Chavez's leadership of the country, and those who view it as a biased attack on the president they feel has lived up to the promises he's made. We have received more letters about this film than we have on other programs in a long time, no doubt an indication that passions run deep and strong on Chavez, his policies, and the state and future of Venezuela. We feel it is a tough-minded report on Chavez and the current state of Venezuela, and we stand by the film and our reporting."