On Telenovelas and Caudillos

I thought it fitting that on the eve of the Venezuelan election, I chose to watch a movie called Bolivar soy yo. It’s a Colombian movie from 2002 that tells the story of an actor in a Colombian soap opera who becomes so immersed in his role of Simon Bolivar, that he goes rogue and kidnaps the president in an attempt to finish the work that Bolivar started 170 years before him.

The movie makes a scathing critique of many aspects of Latin American culture, including telenovelas and the obsession with appearances, but the central critique is overtly political; in fact, the politics of the region are repeatedly compared to theatre. In one memorable moment, “Bolivar” goes off-script at a  South American leaders’ summit where he has been asked to speak. He proclaims, “after my death, my name has been used for the worst deeds.” Pointing to the Venezuelan representative, he says, “in order to justify a coup d’etat.” The leaders smile proudly and, presumably, in agreeance.

I am surprised at how relevant this movie still is. I would argue that Chavez himself is the actor who became so immersed in his assumed role of Bolivar that he ended up believing it. The Chavistas’ claims that Chavez was somehow murdered by the West even echo the theories that Bolivar’s end, too, was engineered by his enemies. Chavez would love the comparison, as he gave the order to have Bolivar’s remains exhumed in order to determine if this was indeed the case. It will be a testament to his legacy if Chavez is someday exhumed for the same reasons–though I find it implausible that western governments that saw him as little more than a noisy diversion are responsible.

Perhaps Chavez would have posed more of a threat if he had actually sought to make Bolivar’s dream of a united “Gran Colombia” a reality. That is, to unite Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Panama, and Bolivia. According to movie Bolivar, the only way for these countries to “escape underdevelopment” is to unite. But, to be honest, the region is so horribly embattled that I don’t see how this could help. (Also, see: E.U.) And Chavez seemed to prefer polarising rather than uniting, alienating half the world and half his own country in his rants against capitalism and a delightful plethora of other political minefields. Still, when overarching and lofty ideals are evoked in politics, people resond, and the power of rhetoric as a vehicle for political change should not be underestimated. A crucial element to which modern politics does not lend itself is vision–in Canada I would attibute the popularity of Jack Layton and Justin Trudeau to being able to impart a coherent and hopeful vision to the populace, capturing the collective imagination. Chavez was an expert at this, and he did so using Bolivarian rhetoric. Policy outcomes aside, it is quite apparent to me that he truly believed that he was acting on higher orders for the greater good, his noble mannerisms echoing those of the actor who thought himself Bolivar.

Unfortunately, this delusion did not die with Chavez. I was able to witness another great Bolivarian performance in the form of an interview with Chavez’s chosen successor, Nicolas Maduro. But before I watched the Maduro interview, I wanted to see what his opponent, Henrique Capriles, was all about. Capriles was interviewed on Venevision, Venezuela’s main (state-controlled) channel. I saw a man who didn’t seem exceedingly sure of himself, but said a lot of things that made sense. The reporter asked tough questions about what Capriles would do to keep down Venezuela’s rampant inflation while promoting growth and how he would combat the out-of-control crime rate. Capriles talked at length about policies that he would enact, and, though some of his answers could have been more specific, he seemed like a rational, intelligent, and sincere person. Which made me all the more shocked when I finally got to the Maduro interview.

The first thing that struck me was that Maduro wasn’t the slightest bit nervous. It’s not that he was putting on a show: he had a conviction in his eyes that implied a sort of noble detachment from pesky formalities like democratic elections. In short, he had the Bolivar look. The reporter (the same one that interviewed Capriles) asked nothing about policy, which was convenient, because Maduro had apparently come there to speak about his humble past as a bus driver and his admiration for Chavez. At no point did he touch on anything remotely resembling a campaign promise–though I only watched for about 20 minutes before becoming too disturbed to continue. The Bolivar was devalued by 33% on this man’s watch, yet his opponent was grilled more heavily about it than he was! (NB: what an ironic sentence! The Bolivar is Venezuela’s currency, in case that wasn’t clear.) This devaluation was engineered to help Venezuelan exports, putting money in the government’s pocket while increasing the price of imports, thus making citizens even more dependent on the state. I am by no means against social assistance, but the flagrant economic mismanagement that became routine under Chavez must not continue.

Maduro speaks of Chavez with rapt adoration, and one of the happiest moments of this election campaign (at least from the point of view of Capriles’ camp) was when Maduro confidently claimed that Chavez had appeared to him in the form of a little bird to give him his blessing. What?! All right, Venezuela, let’s get real for a second: I certainly understand the allure of political vision, of uniting under a common goal to make Venezuela a truly great nation. But this vision must be combined with competence and good faith, two traits that are somewhat lacking in the Chavista camp. I would not want to trust someone who takes advice from little birds with the world’s largest oil reserves and the reduction of a crime rate similar to that of a war zone. But maybe that’s just me.

I know it’s romantic to evoke Bolivar and to aspire to something more, but will it still be romantic when you spend half the day queuing for bread or have your savings wiped out by inflation? I’m not saying that Capriles will work miracles, but there is absolutely, categorically NO reason why resource-rich Venezuela should be in this situation. I’m also not saying that the election will be fair, though I’d like to believe that it will be. I’m just hoping that voters will see the noble Bolivar act for what it is: good entertainment, but undesirable government.

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