Documenting Chavez's Rise To The Top Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez has led a charge to the left in Latin America. Ofra Bikel's new film The Hugo Chavez Show takes a look at the man behind the movement and how he got to the top in Venezuela.
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Documenting Chavez's Rise To The Top

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Documenting Chavez's Rise To The Top

Documenting Chavez's Rise To The Top

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This is Day to Day. I'm Alex Cohen.


And I'm Madeleine Brand. In Venezuela, the political landscape may be changing; a record number of voters turned out yesterday for state and local elections. Supporters of President Hugo Chavez won a majority of the gubernatorial races. Results are still coming in, but his opponents also gained ground in many smaller races. Crime and poverty are increasing in Venezuela, and that poses a challenge to President Chavez as he tries to change the law so that he can run again in 2012.

COHEN: The Venezuelan's president's rise to power is the subject of a new documentary airing tomorrow on PBS. It's called "The Hugo Chavez Show." The title is a reference to a weekly TV program he hosts; it's called "Alo Presidente." The show is part politics, part variety show. He's even been known to sing on it.

(Soundbite of TV show "Alo Presidente)

President HUGO CHAVEZ (Venezuela): (Singing in Spanish).

COHEN: We're joined now by Ofra Bikel. She's the producer of the FRONTLINE documentary "The Hugo Chavez Show." Welcome.

Ms. OFRA BIKEL (Producer, "The Hugo Chavez Show"): Thank you very much.

COHEN: This film focuses on Hugo Chavez's relationship to the media, and it's starting off in 1992, when he staged an unsuccessful military coup. And when he realizes that he won't be able to pull off this takeover, he gives himself up on one condition, and that condition is that he's allowed to appear on television. Ofra, how has Hugo Chavez been able to use that medium as a way to gain power in Venezuela?

Ms. BIKEL: Well, I mean, at the first time, when he gave up the coup, and he gave it up - I mean, he didn't even fight. It was one night and he surrendered. And the first time is not clear why he wanted the media, and he gave a speech at that point of 70 seconds. I mean, it's just a speech that I suppose if it were given here, I mean, nobody would remember it, except, you know, asking his comrades to put down their arms to - so, not to have any more bloodshed.

But what happened in this Venezuela - for some reason, it electrified the country. It's the first time, I think, that somebody said this has been my fault, and he became a star. That, I think, made him realize the power of the media because he became a real, real star. I mean, 10 days later, there was a festival, a sort of - when children sort of dress up, and a lot of children dressed up as Hugo Chavez. So, this was his introduction to the media, and then he realized what an incredible instrument it is, and the media loved him - the beginning, really loved him; eventually, they didn't. And he realized that there was something that he could use and boy, does he use it.

COHEN: Most people in America know Hugo Chavez as the man who once called President Bush the devil when he appeared at the U.N. two years ago. He's this very outspoken guy, kind of a rabble rouser. As you made this film and spent time in Venezuela, what surprised you most about him?

Ms. BIKEL: What surprised me, even after all I know how he doesn't shut up - I mean, how he never - you never can take a cab, or walk, or do anything and not hear Hugo Chavez. I mean, at one point, I thought instead of music, I'm just going to put his voice underneath. I mean, he has this show on Sunday, and then he has three or four other little things which - whatever, I mean, it could be an opening of a school, it could be anything he wants - at which point everything stops, and Hugo Chavez speaks. And that surprised me. I mean, no, I don't - can you imagine if it would happen in the States? I mean, no one would stand it.

COHEN: You spoke with a lot of people in Venezuela, and some of them love him passionately; others have serious problems with the way he's led the country. One of the most compelling scenes for me in this film features a man whose father was kidnapped, never to be seen again. And he talks with you, and he tells you about his view of what Venezuela is like under Hugo Chavez.

(Soundbite of documentary "The Hugo Chavez Show")

Unidentified Venezuelan Citizen: (Crying) (Through translator) It gives me great pain to tell you on international television that Venezuela is not ours. Venezuela has been transformed into a region of crime, a region where life is worthless.

COHEN: Ofra Bikel, what do you see as the reasons why things went wrong in Venezuela under Hugo Chavez?

Ms. BIKEL: I mean, some people will tell you that things didn't go wrong, but things were - different things went wrong for different reasons. I mean, crime, for instance, I mean, there's a tremendous amount of crime, and it's basically because Hugo Chavez thinks of crime as a social problem. I always say it's like the "West Side Story;" there is a lyric that the people sing to Officer Krupke. He said, I'm depraved on account I'm deprived.

COHEN: And that's what's going on in Venezuela?

Ms. BIKEL: That's what he thinks, that they are depraved because they have been deprived. It is a social problem and the revolution has to correct that. He doesn't really face crime as a crime, but as a social problem. And as a social problem, he can't just put all the young people in prison. And so he has a real problem with crime because crime is tremendous.

COHEN: "The Hugo Chavez Show" airs every week on Sunday, and sometimes it can be hours and hours long. You've watched plenty of footage. Is there one moment that strikes out in your mind from his program?

Ms. BIKEL: I mean, yeah, the moment where he declares war on Colombia, I thought was - you know, and I saw it in the show. By the way, the song that you started the show with, he's serenading Castro, which I actually found very interesting. And in a way, I found it moving because there is Chavez and Castro very old, very sick looking, sitting there looking at him, and he's singing to him. There are a lot of moments, you know, that I found interesting, and a lot of moments that I found insanely boring. I mean, anybody who goes on for eight hours, I mean, what can he say? He talks. He talks a lot. There's some moments where he's very warm, other moments he's so rude. It's just - he's not an uninteresting person, let's put it that way.

COHEN: What do you see as the future of Hugo Chavez?

Ms. BIKEL: Oh, God, I don't know. I mean, smarter people than me don't know. Some people, very smart people in Venezuela, said he's not going to last more than a few months. I mean, basically, after the referendum for the reform was rejected in December of last year...

COHEN: And this referendum would have allowed him to remain as president?

Ms. BIKEL: Forever, yeah, as for - whatever, as many times as he wanted, but it was rejected. So, now at least there is a date, an exit date. At one point, you know, before - when he was fighting so much for the reform, he was saying - he was quoting someone who said about him that he was like a painter who paints this picture of - and picture being Venezuela, and if he leaves now, and he would have to give the brush to another artist, another painter, it will be a whole other painting, and he can't do that. He has to finish his painting. Now, when is he going to finish his painting is a good question. You know, we don't know. I don't think he knows. No one knows.

COHEN: Ofra Bikel's documentary, "The Hugo Chavez Show," airs tomorrow on FRONTLINE on PBS. Thank you so much, Ofra.

Ms. BIKEL: Thank you very much for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

COHEN: NPR's Day to Day continues.

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