He's been portrayed as a savior and an autocrat; a hero to his nation's poor and a bombastic, would-be dictator eager to dominate the world stage. He forges controversial alliances while inventing a new kind of revolution he calls 21st-century socialism. He calls George Bush a devil and Castro a god. Who is this man Hugo Chávez, and where is he headed?
In The Hugo Chávez Show, FRONTLINE producer Ofra Bikel travels to Venezuela to offer an illuminating portrait of the Venezuelan president. Through interviews with former government officials, Chávez associates and ordinary Venezuelans, FRONTLINE chronicles Chávez's ascent to power and his efforts to use the powers of the presidency to stay there.
The film also reveals the key role of the media—or, rather, Chávez's savvy use of the media—in his rise to power. This report begins by introducing viewers to Aló Presidente—or "Hello, President"—a weekly televised show that often runs five to eight hours and features Chávez speaking directly to the people, explaining government policy and mixing in a smattering of songs, poetry and whatever else strikes his fancy.
"Chávez is easily caricatured because he can be funny; he can seem buffoonish on his Aló Presidente," journalist Jon Lee Anderson tells FRONTLINE. "He sings; he gets involved in wordplay. ... He's probably the world's first virtual president in the age of the communication revolution."
Beyond being a venue for Chávez's idiosyncrasy, Aló Presidente serves as a weekly window into Venezuelan government, with Chávez often announcing major policy decisions on live television, such as the time he ordered 10 battalions to the Colombian border, or the time he announced that Venezuela was pulling out of the International Monetary Fund. Both decisions were soon reversed off-air.
FRONTLINE investigates beyond the boundaries of the president's show, discovering grand schemes that remain unfinished and a host of public officials blamed for any dissent. FRONTLINE interviews Nelson Mora, a committed community organizer who dared to raise questions about a government relocation plan and was subsequently humiliated by the president on live television. "At that moment, I felt bad. I closed my eyes and felt tears," says Mora. "And I said, 'My God, why does the president treat me like this, the commander in chief, the leader of this process?'"
Yet it was Chávez's keen grasp of the power of the media that propelled him to power, observers say. FRONTLINE recounts how Chávez got his first taste of the media limelight when he participated in a failed 1992 coup. Much to his military compatriots' surprise, Chávez—who was commanding the group's forces in Caracas—agreed to surrender in exchange for a chance to go on the air and address his comrades and the people. The failed coup would send Chávez to prison for two years, but the media exposure planted the seeds of a folk hero in the making.
"Chávez failed militarily, totally," says Alberto Barrera, author of the international best seller Hugo Chávez. "But he triumphed in terms of public relations. The public Chávez who was born was born not out of a military or political victory, but out of the ratings."
Upon his release from prison in 1994, Chávez began laying the groundwork for his eventual rise to the presidency in 1998. The Hugo Chávez Show recounts the highs and lows of Chávez's 10-year tenure. His political successes included pushing through laws that sent Venezuelan society veering to the left and injecting billions of dollars in oil revenue into socialist government programs. Yet he faced an attempted coup in 2002 and suffered last year's stinging defeat at the polls, when Venezuelan voters rejected his attempts to pass laws that would end presidential term limits.
Cracks are also showing in Chávez's much-vaunted revolutionary programs. In The Hugo Chávez Show, FRONTLINE speaks with workers in various socialized cooperatives who say Chávez's government has failed to provide needed resources, or even to pay them for the work they have done.
"I am among the poorest people in Venezuela," says cooperative worker Maria Rengifo. "The president has to know, in order to form a cooperative, we have to have income. ... He has to know what's going on. Why aren't they functioning? Why aren't they producing? Why isn't there anything to produce?"
With frustration building and food shortages common, Venezuela's crime rate has soared, with murders, robberies and kidnappings for ransom occurring frequently. "It's shocking to come nearly a decade on and see that most of what Hugo Chávez was railing in anger about being left with—a failed society, misery, insecurity, unequal distribution of wealth—is still here," Anderson tells FRONTLINE. "That despite these surely thousands of hours of speeches and many billions of dollars of oil wealth pumped into the economy, we don't see huge changes. We see, in fact, that most of Hugo Chávez's revolutionary programs, his inventions to ameliorate and alleviate the social ills at home simply have not worked."