There are three reasons to interpret this film cautiously. First, it was made by people whose roots are far from Latin America. Second, the filmmakers were in Venezuela as guests of the Chavez government, and had been filming a documentary about Chavez for seven months before the coup. Third, we are never told anything specific about the people who orchestrated the coup. The film identifies two leaders, Pedro Carmona (who was sworn in as President during the 2 day coup) and Carlos Ortega, but doesn't say who they are (Carmona was head of the national Chamber of Commerce; Ortega still heads a federation of labor unions). No opposition motives or reasons for the coup are put forward, even for the purpose of discrediting them. Indeed, the film offers no analysis whatsoever of any of the events it depicts.
Chavez comes across as an energetic, gregarious, intuitive sort who is comfortable touching and hugging people everywhere he goes. He disdains free market economic doctrines. We witness demonstrations for and against the government, and exchanges of gunfire, in the days leading up to the coup attempt. Private media sources are portrayed as mouthpieces for the opposition. We are shown how one private television station uses selective footage from a particular camera angle to distort the account of a gun battle in the streets, suggesting that pro-Chavez gunmen are firing at unarmed opposition protesters, when footage from another camera angle (shown in this film) seems to refute this interpretation.
Events during the coup attempt move briskly. The pace, tension, and grainy handheld footage - all remind one of a Costa-Gavras docudrama. The filmmakers are able to shoot up close - close to both pro-Chavez officials and opposition leaders after they take over the palace. (Chavez is taken into custody and driven elsewhere, but we don't see this occur). What lingers are impressions of the grim, quiet, calm of people within the palace, even in the midst of political chaos and noisy crowds at the palace gates. The smug cocksure demeanor of Carmona and his senior associates as they announce the coup. The coolly improvised efforts of the palace guard, who, after two days, bloodlessly seize opposition leaders and retake control of the palace on behalf of the pro-Chavez faction, as Chavez officials reemerge from hiding. Finally an uncharacteristically fatigued, subdued Chavez arrives by helicopter from the place he had been detained. He speaks on state television and in the quietest possible manner tells everyone to `be calm and go home.' It is absolutely the right thing to say delivered in exactly the right tone. This man does have exceptional gifts as a leader.
Taken at face value, this film portrays Chavez as a sunny populist champion of the little guy who's struggling against international fat cats and their domestic puppets to do the right thing for his country. My partner and I left the theater almost feeling infatuated with this warm and earnest man. A majority of Venezuelan voters obviously like him. Chavez was elected to a 5-year term as President in 1998 with 56% of the vote, and two years later, after an overhaul of the constitution, he ran again and won with 59%. It's no secret that the Bush administration doesn't like Chavez: they fear that with him in power Venezuelan oil supplies might become too unpredictable and pricey, and they also worry about Chavez's leftist agenda and hearty embrace of Fidel Castro. The C.I.A. may have aided the coup attempt. Diego Cisneros, who heads the largest private media conglomerate in Venezuela, is an old fishing buddy of George Bush the elder. The ("W") Bush government rushed to recognize Carmona's coup less than 36 hours after it began, and CNN continued to run disinformation bulletins, announcing the coup's success, well after Chavez had reestablished control. I learned on the filmmakers' website that Amnesty International pulled this film from a Human Rights Film Festival in Vancouver B.C. recently because of reports from its Venezuelan affiliate that screening the film could cause harm to some people, presumably associated with AI, in that country. Harm by whom? Certainly unlikely from pro-Chavez people. They couldn't hope for better propaganda than this film offers.
But a darker side of the Venezuelan President emerges from other sources. Information available at the Human Rights Watch (HRW) website and from Reporters Without Borders (RWB) indicates serious compromise of freedom of the press in Venezuela throughout 2002 and 2003, troubles perpetrated both by anti-Chavez and pro-Chavez forces. In 2002, 1 journalist was killed, 58 were physically attacked, and another 16 were threatened. In January, 2002, shortly before the coup, a bomb exploded in offices of a daily newspaper that had published anti-Chavez views. In July, 2002, just three months after the coup, a private TV station was bombed. RWB states that Chavez supporters `.staged many protests designed to intimidate privately-owned news media and repeatedly attacked journalists covering demonstrations.[these events were] spurred on by the President's verbal attacks on the press and the radically anti-Chavez stance adopted by privately owned news media...' In February, 2003, HRW reported that four opposition journalists had been abducted or murdered. In July, 2003, HRW wrote to Chavez, asking him to investigate `critical threats to freedom of the press.'. Journalists whose work supports opposition views `.have been the victims of aggression and intimidation by Chavez supporters,' HRW claimed.
The next elections are scheduled for December, 2006, but under the new constitution Chavez helped create, a referendum can be called for, half way through any presidential term. As of late January, 2004, such a referendum is formally being sought, with nearly 3 ½ million signatures collected. If the petition is validated in February by the government, this would mean a vote in May to either oust Chavez early or support completion of his term. (I gave this film two grades: A- for rare fly-on-the-wall reportage of history in the making, and C- for lack of balance in content and superficial or absent analysis.
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