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Conspiracy, Crisis, Coup 

Irish documentary directors Kim Bartley and Donnacha O'Briain must have thought at perilous moments to have found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. They had gone to Caracas to shoot a film about Venezuela's populist president Hugo Chavez and ended up dead center in the middle of a coup. At the height of the crisis on April 12, 2002, they were with Chavez inside the presidential palace when the military leaders spearheading the coup announced that Chavez must either resign or the palace would be bombed. In the end, the filmmakers were actually in the right place at the right time and were able to edit incredible on-the-spot footage into a riveting if unfortunately biased movie they've titled The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.

The film establishes Chavez's election as a leftist reformer who appealed to his nation's legions of poor with promises to redistribute the wealth. Venezuela is the world's fourth largest oil exporter, but the enormous profits generated by that industry have long been controlled by an elite of well-connected businessmen who have historically controlled everything else in the country as well -- most notably the government, the media and the military. Chavez's election broke the oligarchy's stranglehold on power. He is a charismatic man of sunny disposition, and the film makes clear why voters would find him so appealing. He is dark-skinned like the majority of the population. And he is convincingly empathetic with the yearning of people who have known too little in the way of education, material comfort, access to health care, economic opportunity, etc.

Perhaps inadvertently, the film also makes plain why Chavez would make people in the establishment supremely uncomfortable. Though he has not declared himself a communist, he boasts of his friendship with Cuba's Fidel Castro and campaigns in a red beret while his enthralled followers waive photographs of Che Guevara. Moreover, he seems to go out of his way to antagonize the United States. The film shows a speech where he holds up a photo of the bloodied bodies of Afghan children killed by an errant bomb and chides America's post-9/11 military action with the admonition: "You can't fight terrorism with terrorism." I am among those who agree with the sentiments of that declaration, and I am further among those who have extensive concerns about our post-9/11 foreign policy, but I still find Chavez's inference that Americans killed children on purpose utterly offensive and counter-productive to boot. His grandstanding may have played to the anti-American spirit that now seems rampant in the developing world, but it ignores that we are his country's biggest customer.

Nonetheless, as the film makes clear, the U.S. government is gnawingly slow to learn its lessons. The Castro we have come to know and despise is as much a product of the Bay of Pigs and countless other efforts to destabilize Cuba as it is of Marxist ideology. Whatever Castro may or may not believe, the plight of the Cuban people might not be quite so bad had we engaged Castro rather than shunned him. Castro might not even still be in power. That's the lesson of Vietnam that Robert S. McNamara tries to teach in The Fog of War. Had we engaged Ho Chi Minh instead of fought him, we'd have saved 3.5 million lives and still had the anti-Chinese force we wanted in Southeast Asia. But we didn't learn that lesson.

And so our CIA participated in the coup against Salvadore Allende in Chile. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised is not conclusive that the CIA was involved in the coup against Chavez, but it certainly makes clear how nakedly the Bush administration blamed Chavez for unrest in Venezuela and how embarrassingly quick the U.S. government was to embrace unconstitutional officials anointed by the coup.

The strongest element in this documentary, however, is its evidence of information manipulation by the private television stations in Venezuela, all of whom opposed Chavez and celebrated his ouster. Camera angles that were never broadcast clearly demonstrate that Chavez followers were not guilty of firing on anti-Chavez demonstrators, an offense of which Chavez supporters were accused in Venezuela and by then-Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer in the U.S. But most important, and this element surprisingly is not emphasized in the film, Chavez had the rule of law on his side. He was fairly elected by a strong majority. His opponents may not have liked either his policies or his political style, but they broke the law in overthrowing him and installing themselves in his place without popular support. This picture does not convince me that Chavez has Venezuela on the best course. Time will tell. But it does convince me that he has the support of his people. Massive demonstrations undid the coup in only 48 hours, and to his considerable credit, Chavez has not extracted blood vengeance on his enemies. The job of our government now is to work with him and to make him comfortable in working with us.

click to enlarge Venezuela President Hugo Chavez's 48-hour ordeal - during an attempted coup is chronicled in the - documentary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.
  • Venezuela President Hugo Chavez's 48-hour ordeal during an attempted coup is chronicled in the documentary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.
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