Ofra Bikel is one of America's leading documentary filmmakers. She has produced 25 programs for the FRONTLINE series since its inception in 1983 and collectively these films have received broadcast journalism's most prestigious honors, including the duPont-Columbia Award, the Robert F. Kennedy Award, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers' "Champion Of Justice" award, grand prize and best of category accolades at the Banff International Television Festival, and six national Emmys. (More ...)
You've produced several documentaries in Central and Latin America over the years. How was this one different?
I first went to Central America back when the Soviet Union was still going strong. The Cold War was on, and the U.S. was very engaged in the area. If you remember, Nicaragua was enemy number one, and the Contras were a huge story. El Salvador also was always in the news with its guerillas and death squads. So people were very interested in what was happening there.
Now that's changed. The U.S. is involved in the Middle East, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan. China is sexy, but certainly not Latin America. So people here in the U.S. don't know very much about it and don't care to.
They do know a little about Chávez because he is so outrageously rude and says insane things about President Bush, calling him "donkey," "Mr. Danger," "the devil." But I bet you that not too many of these people can point to Venezuela on a map.
Were there any surprises?
There were surprises. It's one country in which almost no one speaks English -- and I'm talking about editors, writers and journalists even, which is very unusual in Latin America.
Another thing is that there was nobody there who expressed any fondness for the United States in the way that you find in other countries. They don't hate the U.S., but I rarely heard someone say, "I would love to go there," like you hear in Colombia, in El Salvador or other Latin America countries.
In a way, as far as the people go, the U.S. is at best irrelevant. And you will find many people who think of it the way Chávez does: "el Imperio," "the Empire" -- not a complimentary description.
Why is that?
We shouldn't forget that the foreign policy of the U.S. in Latin America was never very respectful of the local regimes -- from the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, to Teddy Roosevelt's "Big Stick" policy, to Reagan and the Contras. And since the U.S. never showed any respect for Latin America, there has always been resentment towards the U.S.
And yet, Venezuela is the most Americanized country in Latin America. It is a huge consumer society. If people have any money they'll go shopping. The young women, including the poor, are all very well-dressed -- breast implantation is the highest in Latin America; in fact, the banks offer special loans for that noble purpose advertised as, "Get plastic with plastic." And if I am not mistaken, there were more Venezuelan Miss Universes than any other nationality. They are also nuts about baseball.
It is actually peculiar to think of a revolution built upon such an Americanized society, and Chávez is very aware of that. In fact, there is a piece in the show where an incensed Chávez cries out, "What is this shopping? What is all this whiskey that we buy? And the Hummers? This is not a revolution of Hummers, this is a real revolution!" So he is obviously frustrated with that.
Also, the Venezuelan mentality is so not that of a communist regime or any other centralized regime with rules and regulations. I will give you an example. When I landed in Caracas, like all the foreign passengers I was given a questionnaire to fill in, with an immense amount of questions. I couldn't even start and was rather anxious about facing the immigration officers. Well, I needn't have worried. No one looked at me or the papers. It was, "OK, stamp, goodbye!" And that is what the country is like -- there are rules but no one ever invokes them. That actually is what made it possible for us to shoot there.
You tried, but couldn't get access to Hugo Chávez and his family. Do you think anything is lost by not having them in the film?
It certainly would have been another film if I were allowed access to Chávez. He is supposed to be very charming and very seductive intellectually. And people are people -- even journalists are people -- and it is not easy to be hard on someone you like. So who knows what the film would have been like?
The fact is I wasn't allowed access and could not interview him mainly because the people around him felt I wasn't "revolutionary enough."
You tried to get an interview with his parents.
Yes, we were in Barinas, his native state, during the research phase, and I thought it would be nice to talk to his parents.
His father is the governor of Barinas, and each of his brothers have an official post there. His father, who used to be a teacher, is actually very well-liked (unlike most of the brothers). The mayor of the city of Barinas, who was very friendly with the father and mother, thought that it would be easy to arrange. "No hay problema" ("No problem"). Well, we found out that everything that is connected to Chávez is a "problema." It turned out it didn't depend on the parents, who agreed, but that we needed a special permit from the presidential palace, which we did not have and would probably not get.
Later, when we filmed in Barinas, we happened to take a couple of shots of the house where Chávez lived as a teenager 40 years ago, and before we managed to turn around, the police were called and followed us the whole day, frightening our drivers, our security people and the people we interviewed.
So basically you can manage to do a lot of things as far as filming is concerned, 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. I think we are the only team which managed to shoot the presidential palace because we didn't know it was forbidden and because the police got to us after we took a couple of shots from miles away. They were nice enough not to confiscate our tape.
They were suspicious of you?
They are suspicious of everyone who wants to write or film or comment on the regime unless he/she are declared pro-Chávez people. They are very afraid of making a mistake for which they will be chastised.
Actually, when I first landed there, I went to see the head of a television station who was very close to Chávez. He was open and nice, and talked very lovingly about Chávez, to whom he was very close. He also spoke perfect English.
We got on well and at the end of our meeting he said he would be glad to give me an interview and would also help me get to Chávez himself.
But then, a couple of weeks later, he let us know that he got information that I was interviewing some people of the opposition, and also that when I interviewed pro-Chávez people I asked difficult questions, therefore I must have been anti-Chávez.
It didn't help to explain that I didn't even have a cameraperson yet, that nothing was on the record, and that I was interviewing people simply to know what was going on.
Both his interview and that of Chávez were scratched.
What was it like to film there?
There were security issues all the time because Venezuela has a huge crime rate -- killings, robberies and kidnappings. And so you are told not to move without protection, so you have people who protect you all the time. It is awkward. On the other hand, you can sort of do what you want. For instance, you need special permits to shoot in the different places. We didn't have permits and no one ever asked us for one. That is Venezuela.
Why is crime so bad?
In a way Chávez is really caught in his own rhetoric. He really thinks that crime is a social problem reminiscent of the West Side Story lyrics -- "They're depraved on account they're deprived." And he doesn't know how to touch that problem without, in a way, harming the revolution. He doesn't see it as crime is crime and it's harmful, but crime is committed by the poor, and the poor must be helped by the revolution.
We met this woman whose husband was killed in front of her and her children outside their small bakery. There were four perpetrators involved. After months and months, they finally caught and tried one perpetrator. And though all four were identified, they were never arrested
Do you see many tourists visiting Venezuela?
Not many, but we stayed mainly in Caracas and had only a couple of days in other towns.
Caracas is not a place I would recommend for tourists, even though the weather is wonderful, the food delicious, and the people are nice. The city itself is not attractive. There are thousands and thousands of poor barrios around (which are actually very pretty from afar til you realize what they really are).
The traffic is horrendous; it makes you feel nostalgic for the traffic of New York at rush hour. Besides, as I said before, people never stop warning you of possible robbery, which apparently happens all the time. You are constantly reminded not to wear a watch, or carry a decent-looking bag or a camera without fear of it being snatched.
We were warned over and over not to venture out without security, but then you don't know what security is. We would have drivers who carried pistols, and then security people who seemed like moonlighting policemen. And sometimes they would need extra security to take care of the security who are taking care of the drivers who were taking care of us. For a production team which is used to getting into one small van in the U.S. and filming as unobtrusively as possible, it was a bizarre experience.
But of course Caracas is not Venezuela -- there are a lot of other places, and tourists can certainly have an agreeable time there. There's a lot of natural beauty, the beaches, the Angel Falls. It is actually a very beautiful country.
So who is Hugo Chávez? Did you come closer to understanding him?
You mean who is the wizard behind the curtain? I think we don't know really. It's hard to say what he is. Is he a clown? He's a revolutionary? As his biographer says, "I don't know that he knows what he is and where he's going … he is entering the territory of myth. He wants to be a legend…"
He is heading somewhere where nobody else went. He has this idea of a 21st-century socialism. Nobody knows what it is. No one knows whether he knows what it is.
If it is a revolution going on there, it's a revolution on the march. He is making up things as he goes along. Many times he'll show in his broadcast Aló Presidente his diary with notes of an idea which had occurred to him and was written down at 1:00 a.m. in the morning -- and the next day by 10:00 a.m. it's a policy.
His TV show -- you are now kind of an expert on it.
I couldn't talk to him, so I had to find another source of getting to him, and since he has his weekly television shows that lasts from five to eight hours at a time, they became my source.
I watched hours and hours of them. In a way I feel I got to know him very, very well. After a while I could tell if he was in a good mood or not, if he knew what he was talking about or was making it up as he went along. I don't think I ever listened to anyone in my life that much.
Why would he talk so much?
He seems very obsessive. He just doesn't stop. He has a lot of charm, no question about that. He can be interesting, he can also be terribly boring. Also, the way he is shot is interesting. There is almost never a shot of him listening or doing anything else but talking. I looked for hours for a couple of shots of him simply sitting listening to someone -- doesn't exist. The only shots of him ever listening is when Castro is talking.
He is always surrounded by his ministers no matter how long the broadcast is. It is really hard to believe that any of them enjoys this -- what a way to spend a Sunday! But of course no one dares not to show up.
How is he viewed by his neighbors in the rest of Latin America? Do you have a sense of that?
He is the man with the money. He is the godfather, the padrone. He gives money to Nicaragua, supports and subsidizes Bolivia and Ecuador, and subsidizes Cuba. He is trying to forge a counterweight to what was U.S. influence in the region.
Now he is arming himself through millions of dollars of arms he buys from Russia.
Is he another Castro?
He would love to be another Castro. He admires Castro because he admires heroes. And Castro really is a hero. He was a revolutionary -- he fought. Poor Chávez, all he did was win an election -- not that heroic, and I think it embarrasses him. On the other hand, I don't think Chávez has the brains of Castro, or the bravery.
I think when Castro dies, Chávez is going to be much more difficult to manage. The fact that the Colombia "war" incident was smoothed out very quickly was because of Castro. We were told that Castro went crazy over Chávez's behavior on that, and many other Chávez-manufactured crises.
But, whatever you say about Chávez -- he's autocratic, he's a centralist -- he's not a dictator. He is not killing people or arresting them en masse the way Castro did.
Somebody said about him he is Bonapartist -- referring to Napoleon, who was very autocratic but not a dictator. I think that Chávez might be an autocrat trapped in a democratic system, and as much as he wants to, he would probably not cross the line of democracy. (I have to add that many people would not agree with me.)
Your program ends with the question of whether he'll be able to hold on to power. Things seem more precarious for him right now. What's happened?
2006 was a high point for Chávez, and he was re-elected by a landslide. Everything looked good. His missions were in place -- his social programs. People were going to get money for participating in the programs, and then they were going to work. On paper it was very good. So people voted for him in 2006.
But then, in 2007, he decided it was time to capitalize on his gain and deepen the revolution, and that's when he decided to reform the constitution so he could make himself re-elected forever. There were a lot of laws that were unconstitutional (according to his own constitution of 1999) and were leaning towards communism and socialism, and people just didn't want it. They may have wanted Chávez, but they didn't want him with all this new baggage. And he was unprepared for that. He had never lost an election or a referendum before, and he was absolutely horrified.
Some of the laws that were rejected on constitutional grounds he brought back by decree. Now he is worried about the important Nov. 23 regional elections of governors and mayors, and he's desperately working to win it -- and not in the most democratic ways, let's say. Since his party dominates almost all institutions, he is barring a lot of opposition candidates from running. He's threatening people, arresting people -- he's just being crazy now.
Where do you place your bets about his future?
It is so hard to say. Some smart people there said to me, "It's a matter of a few months." Somehow, I don't believe it.
Still, the economic situation is very bad. They have 30-percent inflation, the price of the oil is sinking, and Venezuela is a total petrostate. In other words, because they are so dependent on oil, they don't have anything else, so they have to import everything. There's shortages of everything and there's not enough food, and a lot of black market. So you have money, you have oil and you don't have food.
It is not clear yet how the global economic situation with the falling oil prices will affect Venezuela in the long run. And it is certainly not clear how the Chávez saga will end.
In the end, does it come down to his base -- Venezuela's poor -- who have always been there for him the past decade?
His best support is the poor. And it's not that the poor are better off than they had been all these years before -- they've been hurt the most by growing inflation and the crime rate. But for the first time in their life, they feel somebody talks for them, somebody cares about helping them, somebody plans for that. As one of our characters in the film says, "I grew up in the streets, I was used, I was trampled on, but my president taught me to love myself and to respect myself. And there was never anybody like Hugo Chávez."
That's something that will probably be Chávez's legacy. They will never again be able to go back and ignore the poor in Venezuela.