How Chavez Changed Venezuela's Telenovelas

Morning Edition has been reporting from Venezuela this week about the legacy of the late President Hugo Chavez. During the two years Chavez spent in prison for an attempted coup in 1992, he never missed an episode of his favorite soap opera. But Chavez had his own drama with the industry.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Hugo Chavez, the late president of Venezuela, had a touch for the dramatic. He appeared on television all the time. It turns out, he also admired dramatic acting. In the 1990s, when he was in prison for an attempted coup, he never missed an episode of his favorite TV drama.

Once he gained power, a deeper drama developed. Venezuela was a huge exporter of Latin-American multi-episode dramas called telenovelas, until President Chavez's government changed that. NPR's Jasmine Garsd reports.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Ask any Latin American soap opera viewer of a certain age to name a classic, and the Venezuelan telenovela "Crystal" will come up.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CRYSTAL")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Spanish spoken)

GARSD: In this episode, a wealthy son tells his mother he's found out about her poor, illegitimate daughter, conceived with a neighborhood priest. It's telenovelas 101. Growing up in Argentina, these are the over-the-top storylines I used watch as a kid after school. Back in the '80s and '90s, Venezuela was one of the major producers of soap operas broadcast across Latin America.

Chavez, in power for 14 years, changed Venezuela and its TV. RCTV - a major telenovela producer - was shut down by the government for its vocal opposition. Only one network, Televen, is currently producing homegrown soaps. Jonathan Vento is limo driver in Caracas and a telenovela fan.

JONATHAN VENTO: (Spanish spoken)

GARSD: He says he thinks Venezuelans take cues about how to act in everyday life from soap operas. They've watched so many, that they're practically actors themselves. Like many Latin Americans who grew up on a telenovela diet, my own nostalgia for the genre is offset by a deep discomfort about the fantasy world that is portrayed.

The shows are followed by mostly dark-skinned, working-class audiences, but they tend to feature a European-looking heroine, who always ends up marrying the wealthy leading man. That's simply not the way things work on a continent with the greatest economic inequality in the world.

There are some telenovelas with social commentary. Several targeted Chavez during his presidency, with thinly veiled criticism through the characters they created. Many of those were produced by the now-closed RCTV, a blow that the industry has never fully recovered from.

Still, the genre remains immensely popular here, and that has led the state to try its own hand at funding telenovelas. "Teresa En Tres Estaciones" is about everyday Venezuelans affected by the new metro line recently built by the government. The idea was conceived by Chavez himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TERESA EN TRES ESTACIONES")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as Maria Teresa) (Spanish spoken)

GARSD: In this scene, Maria Teresa, a metro line employee, is getting trained on the shiny new transportation system. Her mother pays her a surprise visit to inquire about Maria Teresa's love affair with a man who is not only younger - he is a black Venezuelan, and Maria Teresa is light-skinned. It's a topic that might have remained untouched in the past. Delfina Catala, the producer of the show, acknowledges that the telenovela industry has changed, but says the audience has, too.

DELFINA CATALA: (Spanish spoken)

GARSD: She says nowadays, not all Venezuelans dream of leaving the barrio, of being rich and white. What they want is to live comfortably and happily in their neighborhoods, and that it's a telenovela's job to mirror that change. Stuck in Caracas' infamous traffic, limo driver Jonathan Vento says he isn't buying it.

VENTO: (Spanish spoken)

GARSD: He says he's not interested in telenovelas with a social message. He misses his old soaps. From Caracas, Venezuela, I'm Jasmine Garsd.

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