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The Revolution will not be televised

By Phil Gunson, Columbia Journalism Review

In September 2001, two young Irish filmmakers, Kim Bartley and Donnacha O’Briain, arrived in Venezuela with plans to make a low-budget, fly-on-the-wall documentary about the country’s flamboyant president, Hugo Chávez. A former army officer, Chávez had attempted a coup d’état in 1992, spent a couple of years in jail, and was elected to the presidency in 1998. His followers revere him as a revolutionary, struggling to bring justice to the poor in the face of savage attacks from a local oligarchy backed by Washington. His adversaries call him a dangerous demagogue who has ruined the economy, polarized the nation, and is steadily dismantling a forty-five-year-old democracy. Bartley and O’Briain belong unabashedly in the former camp.

In today’s Venezuela, it is hard, if not impossible, to find an impartial observer. Most of the country’s private news media have openly joined the opposition. State radio and TV are crude cheerleaders for the government. Bartley and O’Briain, however, while rightly criticizing the former, ignore the sins of the latter.

Seven months into their project, persistence and good fortune brought a scoop: they were inside the presidential palace when Chávez was ousted by a military-civilian uprising. The resulting documentary — underwritten by the BBC, Ireland’s RTE, and other European broadcasters — is as thrilling a piece of political drama as you’re likely to see and has won armfuls of prizes, including Britain’s top documentary award, the Grierson. It has aired repeatedly all around the world, has been shown in movie theaters and at film festivals, arguably becoming the prevailing interpretation of the continuing Venezuelan political crisis. The Chávez government, which had 20,000 copies made in Cuba, has been a tireless promoter and distributor of the film.

“It is probably one of the best documentaries I have ever seen on television, and undoubtedly one of the finest pieces of journalism within living memory,” gushed Declan Lynch, a television critic for Ireland’s Sunday Independent, in a fairly typical review of Chávez: Inside the Coup. “The plot was classically simple: Chávez gets democratically elected, to the chagrin of the evil oil-barons and their good buddies in the Bush administration, who express ‘extreme concern’ that Chávez ‘doesn’t have America’s interest at heart.’ Chávez gets ousted by these malign forces, spirited away amid scenes of chaos orchestrated by them. But Santa María! his palace guards remain loyal, and amid scenes of total consternation, Chávez is brought back, the coup is declared null and void by the good guys on state television, and the evil oil-barons flee to Miami, having duly emptied the safe in the palace.”

That engaging narrative is, unfortunately, somewhat at odds with the complex, messy reality of April 2002, when a mass march on the presidential palace in Caracas ended in a massacre and a short-lived change of government. Bartley and O’Briain are entitled to their views, but a close analysis of the film reveals something worse than political naiveté. Constructing a false picture of a classic military coup devised by an allegedly corrupt and racist oligarchy, they omit key facts, invent others, twist the sequence of events to support their case, and replace inconvenient images with others dredged from archives. (A version of the film in Spanish is called La Revolucion No Sera Transmitida: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.)

By the time of the coup, Venezuela had been embroiled for almost six months in a severe political crisis. The lid blew off when Chávez moved to rid the state oil corporation, Petróleos de Venezuela, of its top managers and directors, whom he perceived as inimical to his self-styled “revolution.” Chávez recently admitted that he deliberately provoked the showdown: the result was that oil managers, business leaders, and large segments of organized labor called a work stoppage, backed by millions of Venezuelans, particularly the country’s increasingly impoverished middle class. Disaffected military officers, angry at Chávez’s drive to place the armed forces at the service of his political project, were also involved.

On the morning of April 11, an estimated 500,000 people conducted an opposition march. The government called on its supporters to form a human shield around the presidential palace and attempted to activate a military defense plan. When the marchers, who had deviated from their original route, approached the palace, shooting broke out on all sides. A score of civilians died and more than 150 suffered gunshot wounds. The military high command called for Chávez to resign, and at 3:20 the next morning they announced he had agreed to do so. The presidency was assumed by a business leader, Pedro Carmona, but his government collapsed in less than forty-eight hours and Chávez returned to power.

In Bartley and O’Briain’s film, the chavistas (as the president’s supporters are known) are invariably poor, brown-skinned, and cheerful. The opposition, on the other hand, is rich, white, racist, and violent. Unseen are the armed bands of chavista thugs who for years have made the center of Caracas a no-go area, beating up or shooting opposition marchers or TV crews who dare to approach. Invisible, too, are the massive — and multiracial — peaceful opposition rallies, whose huge numbers belie the government’s claim to represent the masses.

In June, two months after the violence, Bartley and O’Briain filmed a group of condominium residents discussing how to defend themselves against possible chavista attacks. But the film — whose narrative purports to follow a strict chronology — inserted the interviews before the march. When I challenged Bartley on that in an exchange of e-mails, she dismissed the criticism, saying the producers felt that “the views expressed at this meeting illustrated the collective mind of the opposition long before the coup ever took place.”

Important to her argument are images of peaceful chavistas facing a violent opposition march. She inserts a sequence ostensibly filmed outside the presidential palace on the morning of April 11 in which Caracas’s mayor, Freddy Bernal — a leading chavista radical — sings and plays the maracas for a crowd of smiling government supporters. The backdrop to the platform, however, reveals that the sequence does not belong to that day, when a differently dressed Bernal was organizing an armed defense of the palace.

Until coming under fire, the opposition march was entirely peaceful. But in the documentary, images of the march’s violent finale, along with one shot taken two days earlier, are inserted near the start of the demonstration. “The opposition march was fast approaching,” the commentary declares, “and some in the vanguard looked ready for a fight.”

Before the march neared the palace, a number of people were shot, and several killed there. The film suggests that they were shot by “the coup plotters.” The fact is — as Bartley and O’Briain later admitted — we don’t know who was shooting. Nevertheless, a Venevisión reporter named Luis Alfonso Fernández was hustled off a rooftop for filming chavista gunmen apparently firing at the opposition march.

That film, repeated incessantly on the opposition TV channels, became the most contentious image of the entire day. Bartley accepts a government argument that “the opposition march had never taken that route” and that the gunmen were merely returning fire from snipers and the opposition-controlled police. She fails to mention that several people on the opposition march were shot dead, and many more wounded, less than two blocks from the gunmen. An image she uses showing an empty street below the Llaguno Bridge on which the gunmen were standing was filmed much earlier than the Fernández sequence, according to an analysis of the shadows by Wolfgang Schalk, a Venezuelan TV producer.

While the shooting was going on, Chávez commandeered all radio and TV frequencies for a speech that lasted almost two hours. He had used this prerogative up to seventeen times during the previous day. When private TV channels split the screen during his speeches to show the accompanying violence, the president ordered the National Guard to shut them down. None of this is featured in the film, which wrongly claims that state TV (VTV) was “the only channel to which he had access.” Later that evening, VTV went off the air after its staff deserted. The film implies that it was taken over by coup-plotters, and even fabricates a sequence in which the TV screen goes blank during a government legislator’s interview.

As the documentary proceeds, the atmosphere inside the palace is — not unnaturally — becoming pretty tense. “We could see on TV that the palace had been surrounded by tanks,” says the film’s narrator. The “tanks” (actually armored cars) had been ordered there by the president, not the opposition.

More serious is the deliberate blurring of responsibility for the coup. The high command that announced Chávez’s resignation — then quickly dissolved, leaving a total power vacuum — never in reality abandoned the president’s cause. Its senior figure, General-in-chief Lucas Rincón, is currently the interior minister. With one exception — the army commander, General Efraín Vásquez — they took no part in the Carmona government. Vásquez himself withdrew support from Carmona in less than two days, bringing down his short-lived regime. A group of senior officers, who released a videotaped statement withdrawing their support from Chávez, is presented in the film as if they were the high command. Their leader, Vice-Admiral Héctor Ramírez Pérez, is identified as the head of the navy. He was not. With one solitary exception, these generals and admirals had not “fled abroad” after the Carmona government collapsed, as the film claims.

In constructing their alternative reality, the directors omit all mention of an announcement by General Rincón that Chávez had resigned, later calling it “supplementary to the main, key fact of the story” (i.e., their contention that he did not). They declined to respond to my argument that scenes in the documentary were fabricated, or placed out of sequence to alter the chain of cause-and-effect, saying they were “tired of having our film subjected to frame-by-frame analysis in an attempt to discredit it for political reasons.”

The opposition media, as the film rightly points out, behaved disgracefully during the April events. They systematically excluded the chavista viewpoint from print, radio, and TV in the period April 11-13. But how ironic that a film purporting to set the record straight should itself turn out to be an exercise in propaganda.



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