Chávez on TV: What "El Comandante" Says About Rising Populism
Moisés Naím doesn’t shy away from new projects. But the Venezuelan economist and TV host’s latest creative endeavor has sparked more than the usual controversy.
“El Comandante,” a telenovela about Venezuela’s late former President Hugo Chávez , takes liberties with the strongman’s biography even as it considers his legacy and sheds light on his rise to power. Naím, a former trade minister whose book provided the basis for the show, insists it is “a work of fiction that doesn’t pretend to be a historical document.” But the reaction from Latin American audiences so far suggests that viewers aren’t taking the subject matter lightly. “What is clear is that no one is indifferent to Hugo Chávez,” said Naím. “He aroused opinions and passions in favor and against him.”
Naím recently spoke to AQ about what “El Comandante” says about his country’s spiraling political and economic crisis – and whether comparisons of Chávez to U.S. President Donald Trump hold water. This interview has been translated from Spanish and edited for clarity and length.
Americas Quarterly: What was your motivation for creating a TV show about Hugo Chávez?
Moisés Naím: For many years, when I tried to explain what was happening in Venezuela, people thought it was fiction. In the case of Hugo Chávez, reality was much more surprising than fiction. So it was really hard to explain to people that what I was saying was actually happening. I decided that the best way to explain it wasn’t with an essay, or an article, but rather with a fictional TV show for a massive audience.
AQ: “El Comandante” has sparked controversy in Venezuela. The government not only prohibited it from airing but also responded with a campaign using the motto “Here, no one says bad things about Chávez.”
Naím: The Venezuelan government has demonstrated once again what is a historical truth, which is that when a government censors a theater or TV show, a book, a song, or a news outlet, right in that moment, it makes people want to see it. It gives it an enormous boost.
AQ: U.S. audiences will get to see the show in March. How do you think the current political moment – and comparisons between U.S. President Donald Trump and Chávez – will affect how it’s received?
Naím: Well, there are parallels, no doubt: the way of acting, of denouncing journalists, saying that there are conspiracies against them nationally and internationally, presenting themselves as the messianic solution to problems, and of despising and degrading everything that came before them.
We have to remember that on the day of his inauguration, Donald Trump talked about there being carnage in the U.S., referring to the “incredibly high” crime rates, when data shows that we have the lowest crime rates in many decades. Then he recently said he had inherited a “mess,” when really, (former President Barack) Obama left him the strongest economy in the world. Chávez did the exact same thing.
AQ: And yet, many expect Trump to take a tougher line on Venezuela than his predecessor, and perhaps have more success in promoting a move toward democracy.
Naím: The change in Venezuela will come from Venezuelans. To keep thinking that it will come from outside is an illusion that can be comfortable, but it’s really Venezuelans who will have to generate changes. That can never be forgotten.
Chávez takes issue with the media in an upcoming episode of "El Comandante"
AQ: Venezuela under President Nicolás Maduro seems to be sinking further into economic and humanitarian crisis. Many say that if Chávez were alive, things would be different, including many who opposed him…
Naím: (That’s) marginally true. But what’s important here is not the people but the policies. And the policies that are in place now are the ones Chávez imposed, defended and applauded.
Maduro hasn’t changed a single economic policy of the ones Chávez imposed. That means that Maduro is the perfect continuation of Hugo Chávez, and what’s happening in Venezuela is the result of that path, those ideals, and those policies. But also the way of doing politics, no? Retaining power no matter what and cheating is, it seems, an art that was very well cultivated by Chávez and that Maduro continues to practice.
AQ: The show will show the trajectory of Chavez's rise, from young man to strongman. Do you think he really believed in his "Bolivarian" project, or was he more concerned with holding power?
Naím: I think Chávez went through the same thing every revolutionary leader does, where they start with grand idealism and end up with grand pragmatism. They start with the ideal of doing good to their country with power. But when they attain power, it seduces them, power is addictive. And they end up simply doing what they need to do to retain that power. And in the process, well, they betray their own ideals.
AQ: Is the show a warning, then, or a lesson for Venezuela and others in the future?
Naím: Absolutely. Definitely. Chávez wasn’t inevitable but Venezuelans had bad luck because he came with a message that people wanted to hear, and he was an exceptional politician in his capacity to communicate and to connect emotionally with the people. No one can refuse that.
Sadly, that leader was full of bad ideas. Ideas that are today causing Venezuela to suffer one of the most painful tragedies that any country in Latin America has had – ever. And that’s his legacy.
AQ: So what’s the lesson for the rest of the world?
Naím: Maybe the most important lesson from Venezuela’s experience for other countries is: be afraid of anti-politics. Of the politicians that allege that every existing thing is bad, that criminalize ideological differences, that call political rivals traitors. And the other thing is complacency. Be aware of the malaise and the defects that exist in your country, and be willing to fix them.
“El Comandante” premiered on Jan. 31 in Colombia on RCN and throughout Latin America on TNT. It will air in the U.S. on Telemundo beginning in March.
Krygier is an editorial intern for Americas Quarterly from Venezuela