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The Two Faces of Hugo Chavez

By Alexandra Beech,

I often ask myself how educated people fall for Chavez. I know someone who says that Chavez has a special charm that makes straight men fall in love with him. Another friend says that Chavez is a snake charmer. Yet others attribute his attraction to an innate ability to convince and manipulate.

Whatever else you want to call him, Chavez is a phenomenon. Shaking his head during a recent Sumate meeting in New York, one Venezuelan lamented that fifty years from now, people will speak of Chavismo like they speak of Peronismo today. I said, make that a hundred years.

Living in Venezuela two years ago, I watched his “cadenas” often, when he forces all television networks to broadcast his speeches. In most countries, presidents only use this mechanism during times of national emergency, during State of the Union addresses, state funerals, and such. Most of these interruptions are pre-planned. I don’t remember an American president ever interrupting a television show on primetime, and I hope I never will.

Chavez sings, tells stories, orders coffee, and ad libs about issues of national importance. When the former First Lady gave him a marimba, an idiophone that is sounded by striking wooden bars with a mallet, he played it while describing the so-called achievements of his administration.

“Inflation is down”, dum, dum, dum, dum. “We’re beating malnutrition.” dum, dum, dum, dum. “Hey, bring me a coffee!”

When he sang Ali Primera songs, Ali Primera’s descendants publicly asked him to stop using their ancestor’s name. They were opposition. When he told the story of Fiorentino and the Devil, the descendents of the author of that story also asked him to stop. They were opposition.

Perhaps the greatest abuse of his power has been his misuse of television.

Production quality on his show has improved considerably over the years, as his producers have become better acquainted with the latest technologies and techniques. During his first months in office, it was not uncommon to see him sitting too far to the right or left, the camera not centered properly. Or he looked like a little man in a big brown room with an immense painting of Simon Bolivar behind him. Or the cameramen would have trouble focusing on the graphs and photos that he held up.

One evening, since nothing else was on television, I turned up the volume and listened to a cadena. Suddenly, the digital counter on our television set turned on, at the corner of the screen. Chavez had just started blasting El Nacional newspaper. I fiddled around with buttons, but I couldn’t turn the timer off. As Chavez spoke, I watched the numbers ascending...22, 23, 24. That evening, Chavez ranted for over an hour and a half about El Nacional.

It struck me that something was wrong with his mental well-being. How could someone consider it appropriate to use a national platform, such as television, to express a grudge? Didn’t he understand that as president, he had a duty to all Venezuelans to respect their time? What effect would all of this unbridled hatred have on his followers, on children, on all Venezuelans, especially the employees at El Nacional and other private media?

My question was answered promptly. His followers surrounded El Nacional, and threatened those locked inside. Venezuelans watched as his followers burned cigars on the street, holding bizarre rituals. Others screamed against the “coup-mongering” media, mimicking Chavez’s own rhetoric .

What started to become apparent was that Venezuela was becoming a dangerous place for anyone who opposed the President. His televised commands could incite a riot or an attack.

When educated people see Chavez from abroad, they only see the Chavez who kisses old women on the forehead, such as the Chavez portrayed in the propaganda film “The Revolution Will not be Televised”, or the Chavez who hands out cash to the poor in the government-funded Vheadline site.

They don’t see the Chavez who screams against Venezuelans, or the Chavez who fired oil workers by name on television because they went on strike demanding a change, or the Chavez who fired Venezuelans for signing for a constitutionally granted referendum.

They see the Chavez who brings Cuban doctors into poor neighborhoods, but they don’t see the Chavez who ignores the deplorable condition of state-run hospitals. And they don’t see the thousands of unemployed Venezuelan doctors who were never offered government employment.

They see the Chavez who educates poor children, but they don’t see the Chavez who cut all financing to Fe y Alegria, a program that educated and assisted poor children also, and the Atenea Foundation, another private organization which assisted abandoned children. They see the Chavez who is using state funds to assist the poor, but they don’t see the Chavez who is also using state funds to finance very expensive lobbyists in Washington to distribute propaganda, and they don’t see the Chavez who is also using Venezuelan revenues to finance foreign campaigns as well as his own.

They see a Chavez who speaks of his love for the poor, but they don’t see a Chavez who bought the most luxurious plane in Venezuelan history.

They see the Chavez who was asked to resign on April 11, but they don’t see the Chavez who ordered the military to shoot unarmed civilians that day.

They see the Chavez who calls everything a conspiracy, but they don’t see the Chavez who records private telephone conversations, and then plays them on national television. They don’t see the Chavez that led youths into a bloody coup in 1992, as he cowered in the military museum.

If they are more informed, they see the Chavez who rails against Bush, but they don’t see the Chavez who signs deals with foreign oil companies.

Everyone sees the Chavez that they want to see.

The European left sees the Fidel that never was, and the American left sees the Fidel that could have been. The Arabs see the Chavez that is being manipulated by the US for oil, and the Colombians see the Chavez that is manipulating oil and the Americans to stay in office.

The Brazilians would rather not see Chavez at all.

For Venezuelans who have lost a job or a family member during the past five years, or who are simply tired of words over actions, Chavez is a president they hope to revoke in August.

As the referendum approaches, Chavez will use and misuse television more than ever. On the night that the news were set to reveal the wording of the question for the referendum, he interrupted programming to show footage of himself speaking to a group of students, during which he said that Washington was a “devil” to be “destroyed”. Already, the Pro-No campaign has broadcast twice the number of commercials as the Pro-Yes campaign, despite strict elections rules. Between June 26 and July 6, VTV state television ran 902 pro-No commercials totaling 467 minutes, and only sixteen pro-Yes commercials, totaling 7.2 minutes. Does the state’s television belong to all Venezuelans, or only to President Chavez and his government?

Chavez is right when he says that the referendum is a battle. It is a battle which will be fought on television, and unless the opposition uses the little precious time it has wisely, Venezuelans will face many more years of a caffeine-charged Chavez playing marimbas and telling the world off.

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