What is Venezuela for you?

Notes on the documentary film ¿Puedo Hablar? May I Speak? Directed and co-produced by Christopher Moore

by Karin Koch

Whenever you're invited to watch a movie about the political situation in Venezuela, you can't help but being overly skeptical. The subject is so controversial and polemic that it lends itself to one sided portrayals of the conflict at hand. So, I was hoping for a film with a different approach which certainly is not an easy task to accomplish as the moderator of the event organized by the Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University correctly pointed out. Before the screening, people would approach him with the question: "Is it a Chavista or an Anti-Chavista film?" instead of inquiring about the quality of the film.

Clearly, division serves the so-called Chávez revolution well, but does it solve Venezuela's huge social problems? Admittedly, most of these problems are part of the unfortunate legacy of past governments but they are on the way of becoming the legacy of the current one as well. After all, there are really no more excuses after ten years of so-called revolutionary process.

Unfortunately, most film makers seem to fall prey to the same ideological trap as everybody else and are not able to look beyond the myths and the empty rhetoric. Especially, those who come from abroad seem to be smitten by the very notion of a romantic third world revolution that promises participatory democracy or, even better, socialism of the 21st century, a concept nobody really understands, including President Chávez himself. In the eyes of these film makers, dissidency is synonymous with oligarchy of the CIA-payed, coup-mongering kind.

Conversely, some of the so called documentaries made by some Venezuelan oppositional groups leave a lot to be desired. I've seen some pretty bad ones that can only be described as propagandistic crap. Their narrow focus blames all of society's ills on Chávez and his followers instead of reflecting on Venezuelan society as a whole.

Reality is never black and white and in order to understand political conflict in a society you have to look at it not only from different angles but also within a broader historical context. Present day upheavals can be traced back to a myriad of factors that have shaped our recent history, factors such as population growth, the role of the Social Democratic AD party in organizing Venezuela's first modern political mass movement (this has to be recognized, independently whether you like the Adecos or not), the repressive, authoritarian and corrupt tradition of the military, the impact of forty years of so called democracy within the context of a highly centralized, presidentialist system, the lack of a strong and independent judicial system and, most importantly, the role of the oil fueled boom to bust economic cycles in shaping a culture of clientelism and consumism.

Having said all of the above, I do applaud the producers of ¿Puedo Hablar? May I Speak? for their honest effort at trying to present a more diverse picture of the Venezuelan political spectrum by giving different elements ample opportunity to express their views.

Filmed last year during the Chávez reelection campaign, the opening scene of the film sets you up with the spectacle that Chávez has been subjecting the country ever since he came into power: The eternal campaign. We see the charismatic Chávez warming up to a delirious audience, asking politely: "¿Puedo Hablar? May I speak?". A question coming, ironically, from someone who has been monopolizing the airwaves of an entire nation with excruciatingly long speeches that can only be characterized as a mixture of improvised variety show, incoherent political sermons that defy any logic and insults geared towards everyone who dares to disagree.

By way of contrast, we also get to see the candidate of the opposition, Manuel Rosales, whose lack of charisma and weakness of discourse is painfully evident, addressing his supporters before closing his campaign in the largest rally ever held in recent Venezuelan history with 1.5 million people in Caracas.

Interestingly, the one thing that seems to connect both campaigns, as portrayed in the film, is the hyper emotionalism revolving around the figure of both candidates. In a particularly revealing scene, we see the devastated followers of Rosales gathering at his campaign headquarters shortly after he had conceded defeat, a historic moment as for the first time the opposition didn't immediately cry out fraud without holding any tangible prove in their hands. As expected, emotions are running high and you can feel a sense of betrayal pervading the room. Suddenly, a Rosales supporter shouts out in despair: "Great, he's become a Chavista now!"

These highly charged campaign scenes are nicely juxtaposed with images of common Venezuelan citizens going through their every day struggle, confronting, regardless of their political orientation, such problems as abject poverty, lack of housing and public transportation, lack of job opportunities, rampant crime, environmental disasters, you name it. In a very telling scene of the movie, we see a desperately poor guy, father of three children, standing in front of his dilapidated rancho waiting for the government to build him a new house. He is absolutely convinced that this time Chávez will not let him down as other governments have done in the past. His sister, a Rosales supporter, standing next to him, laughs at his naiveté and complains about the government's failure to improve their miserable life conditions.

In another scene, the film makers visit a Belgian priest who works in the impoverished neighborhood of Petare, in the eastern part of Caracas whose inhabitants, as he explains, belong to the D and E (lower economic) strata according to a scale that divides up the Venezuelan population in five economic groups. When asked what Venezuela represents for him, a question asked repeatedly throughout the film and which serves as a Leitfaden of sorts, he declares his unconditional love for the country which he has come to identify with, after having lived there for 40 years, taking care of the poor. And it's easy to see why; the friendly and creative disposition of the Venezuelan people is another thread that runs through the film.

Interspersed with scenes of regular people are interesting interviews with academics and journalists who offer their interpretations of the political events. Off hand, two come to mind: well respected pro Chávez historian Margarita López-Maya who seems to have second thoughts and is worried about increasingly eroding minority rights and Teodoro Petkoff, publisher of the left leaning newspaper Tal Cual who is also a Rosales campaign adviser and a vocal critic of the Chávez governement. He stresses the importance of maintaining an open dialog between the government and the opposition.

To their credit, the film makers also travel to different parts of the country, visiting the oil rich Maracaibo Lake where they talk to local activists about the environmental disaster that the oil industry is causing there and how it is impacting the indigenous populations. In the Andean city of Mérida, we are introduced to students of Universidad de Los Andes, a hotbed of student revolts (in fact, one of their student leaders, Nixon Moreno is in hiding from the government). In the Amazonian region, we listen to a remarkable woman, a teacher in a small Indian village; complaining about the government’s discriminatory practice of giving preferential treatment to Chávez supporters when distributing school materials. In another scene, a man, most likely a tourist guide, standing in front of a breathtaking landscape that looks like Guayana in the southern eastern part of Venezuela, explains that Venezuelans have an unfortunate tendency to believe in Messiahs who will descend on them and magically go about solving all of their problems. When asked by the filmmakers about his personal opinion on Chavismo, he is reluctant to answer, probably fearing adverse consequences.

In conclusion, the film does offer indeed a snapshot of Venezuelan society at a crossroads as the press release indicates, but snapshots only represent one moment frozen in time and events are moving fast in Venezuela. The election campaign between Chávez and Rosales is already a thing of the past and in true Chávez fashion (never a dull moment), we are moving on to the next campaign: The Constitutional Reform, a highly controversial proposal, currently rushed through the Chávez controlled National Assembly, presented on August 15 by the President himself which, if approved, will change 33 articles of the Constitution. Despite the extremely short time frame given to ordinary Venezuelan citizens to become acquainted with the content of this proposal, it will be subject to referendum in December 2007 and then, who knows what will happen.

Disclaimer: The views expressed by the author of this post do not necessarily reflect the views of the other members of Venered.

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