4 / 5 stars 4 out of 5 stars.
In an era of populism, this documentary about the president-cum-TV superstar Chávez feels appallingly familiar
Chitra Ramaswamy– The Guardian
Six years after his death, we get Revolution in Ruins: The Hugo Chávez Story (BBC Two), a dense and deeply depressing precis of his 14-year rule of Venezuela: a country with the largest proven oil reserves on the planet where 90% of the population live in poverty. Why this, now? Probably because of the rise in populism and the cult of personality in politics, which collide with such magnetic force in the polarising figure of Chávez.
Of course there’s a world of difference between the populism of the left and the right, which is what we’re seeing in Brazil, Hungary, the US and the endless chaos of Brexit. What’s so appalling is the outcome is often the same: the slippery slope to authoritarianism, corruption and abject poverty. Venezuela is now a country in freefall. Inflation is said to be more than 1,000,000%. People are starving to death. Childhood friend Rafael Simon Jimenez says of the president’s death from cancer at the age of 58, “[it] spared him from dealing with the disaster that began under his rule”.
But I’m fast-forwarding to the end. This balanced explainer begins with the longstanding inequities in a country of 30 million people, many of whom have never benefited from Venezuela’s unparalleled oil reserves. Chávez was one of them: the son of teachers raised in the impoverished southwestern plains. His childhood nickname was Goofy on account of being skinny with big feet. (Those who later tuned into the president’s singing and dancing TV show, described by a former adviser as “a variety show happening all day, every day”, might have assumed it was for different reasons.) He joined the military and by 1992 was leading a coup to overthrow the government.
This is when the nation first encountered the fresh-faced army officer in a red beret and fatigues on TV, a medium embraced so evangelically by Chávez one can’t help but think of another media-obsessed leader who sprang from the small screen and is increasingly called a dictator. Before going to prison, Chávez asked to address the country live on TV. “We have not met our objectives … for now,” he announced. It was those last two bristling words – “por ahora” in Venezuelan Spanish – that seized the imagination of an entire country. In that moment Chávez, the charismatic comandante, socialist revolutionary and media superstar, was born.
The other Chávez, the one drunk on power who persecuted his opponents and by 2009 was announcing his intention (live on TV, naturally) “to stand for re-election, indefinitely”, comes later. First we get the shock 56% win four years out of prison, the defiant world tour which, one commentator recalls, “felt like an ABC of US enemies”, and the governing by reality TV. How often is a head of state’s makeup artist one of the main talking heads on a political documentary?
“He was funny and you hung on everything he said,” recalls Eva Golinger, Chávez’s foreign policy adviser from 2004-13. Later, she tells a chilling story. Interviewing him in private, Golinger asked Chávez a question that “set him off”. Chávez turned off the tape. “He said: ‘My neck is sore. Do you give massages?’ I thought, my time here is up.”
His charisma and sheer audacity could be electrifying. When referring to President George W Bush in a UN address, Chávez said: “Yesterday the devil came here and it still smells of sulphur.” Socialists call this Latin America’s golden decade, when Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador and Argentina all elected leftwing populist presidents.
But “the dark side of Chávez”, as Margarita Lopez Maya of the Central University of Venezuela calls it, was there in his ruthless pursuit of enemies, addiction to power and capacity to spend trillions of dollars in oil revenues without helping the poor he vowed to champion. Chávez spent more on his final election campaign, when the country knew he was dying and elected him anyway, than either Obama or Trump.
This may be a documentary about a man leading a specific revolution, but it’s also, unfortunately, a story as old as civilisation: how power corrupts men, idealism gets warped, and the cult of personality ends up a one-way track to megalomania. And yet we seem incapable of changing the script. Told you. Deeply depressing. So yes, this may be the last documentary you can face watching right now. But that probably means you should watch it.