For Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, A Second Life On The Small Screen : Parallels A new TV series recounts the life of the late strongman — and suggests his rule laid the groundwork for the food shortages, hyperinflation and political polarization plaguing Venezuela today.
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For Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, A Second Life On The Small Screen

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For Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, A Second Life On The Small Screen

For Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, A Second Life On The Small Screen

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is coming back to life on Spanish-language television. A new series which will be aired in the U.S. this spring recounts how Chavez rose from obscurity to lead a socialist revolution and then how he set the stage for Venezuela's current political and economic crisis. Reporter John Otis has more.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: At a Bogota studio, a TV crew shoots a scene for "El Comandante." It's a Spanish-language telenovela about Chavez, the firebrand leftist who ruled Venezuela for 14 years.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

ANDRES PARRA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: That Chavez-sounding voice belongs to Colombian actor Andres Parra. To prepare for the role, he listened to 400 hours of Chavez's speeches and worked with a voice coach. His bulky frame, curly haired wig and prosthetic chin make him a dead ringer for the Venezuelan strongman. Here's Parra mimicking Chavez's insults of former President George W. Bush.

PARRA: And then he says (speaking Spanish). The last - the last - you are the last, (laughter) Mr. Donkey, (laughter) Mr. Danger.

OTIS: In an earlier TV series, Parra played drug lord Pablo Escobar. But he finds Chavez even more fascinating.

PARRA: He made this speech. It was nine hours, 46 minutes speech - without peeing or drinking or anything.

OTIS: And that's when he was dying from cancer.

PARRA: Yeah. He was sick. It was a way, like, to show people - I'm here. I came back, and I'm strong.

OTIS: In "El Comandante," Parra first depicts the young, idealistic Chavez escaping poverty by joining the army and being elected president with the backing of Venezuela's poor. Then Chavez morphs into a power-hungry authoritarian. The series suggests his rule laid the groundwork for today's food shortages, hyperinflation and political polarization in Venezuela. Looking back on the Chavez years has proved highly emotional for Henry Rivero, the director of "El Comandante" who grew up in Venezuela.

HENRY RIVERO: It's been very hard for me. I cried a lot most of the times because, you know, you understand how tough were the situations that we went through during all those years.

OTIS: The 60 episodes are being filmed in Colombia due to the hardships of working in neighboring Venezuela. What's more, that country's socialist government has branded the project a hatchet job.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DIOSDADO CABELLO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: In a recent speech, pro-government lawmaker Diosdado Cabello said, "they are going to emphasize the bad and make the world think that Hugo Chavez was a barbarian."

Meanwhile, Venezuelans who despise Chavez have come down hard on the actors. So says Vicente Pena, a Venezuelan who plays a military attache in "El Comandante."

VICENTE PENA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "They say I should be ashamed of myself for acting in this series."

But his fellow actor Parra says that for him, playing Hugo Chavez is the role of a lifetime.

PARRA: It shows you so much things about the human tragedy of how we change. You see ambition. But at the same time, you see compassion. Everything - he has everything. For an actor, that's delicious.

OTIS: "El Comandante" premieres in Latin America this month and in the U.S. on the Telemundo network this spring. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Bogota, Colombia.

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