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Behind the failed coup in Venezuela

Review by Julien Ball | January 2, 2004 | Page 9

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. Filmed and directed by Donnacha O'Briain and Kim Bartley.

ON APRIL 11, 2002, Venezuelan business association leader Pedro Carmona, in concert with high-ranking military commanders, staged a coup to oust democratically elected President Hugo Chavez. Just days earlier, Carmona had met with U.S. officials.

Donnacha O'Briain and Kim Bartley's documentary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised makes a strong case for what the U.S.'s role in the coup might have been. After the violent confrontations that led to the coup, we see U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell saying, "We are concerned with some of the things said by President Chavez, and his understanding of what a democratic system is about." Earlier, we see another U.S. official express "extreme concern" that Chavez "doesn't have America's interest at heart."

The film is also remarkable in its analysis of the role of the private media in backing the coup. The greatest accomplishment of the film, however, is its graphic illustration of a polarized Venezuelan society at a dramatic moment in history.

The film crew had gone to Venezuela months earlier to film the Chavez administration and happened to be on hand during the coup. The filmmakers' presence so close to the action during such an exciting time makes for exhilarating drama.

On the one hand, we see the poor, who led the way in catapulting Chavez into office in the 1998 elections with nearly 80 percent of the vote. On the other hand, we see the rich and powerful, bent on preserving the status quo in Venezuelan society. For example, we get an inside view of a wealthy cooperative association meeting where the chairman warns members to "watch your servants."

In a country where the majority of the population lives in crushing poverty, Chavez is a charismatic leader and talented orator who seems to speak to the aspirations of ordinary people. He has encouraged self-organization into "Bolivarian circles"--neighborhood groups that work on local issues and educate people about the new constitution, approved by referendum in 1999.

He also speaks out against corporate globalization and advocates using resources to meet peoples' basic needs. In this climate, many Venezuelans feel connected to the political process for the first time.

One woman, a member of a Bolivarian circle, tells the film crew that she never used to care about politics, because to her, their only purpose was to enrich the already powerful. She comments that she now feels the political system belongs to her.

It's when Chavez announced plans to restructure the state-run oil company that class polarization begins to boil over. Anti-government forces used the privately owned TV stations to announce a march on the oil company. Throngs of Chavez opponents turn out on the streets--as do thousands of his supporters.

Throughout this tense period, the camera captures everything. On April 12, we see hundreds of thousands march to the presidential palace to demand Chavez's return, and then the presidential guard oust the coup leaders and restore the elected administration to the cheers of the throngs outside.

If there is one weakness to this remarkable film, it's its blind devotion to Chavez. Still, with the mainstream media feigning objectivity while siding with the rich and powerful, it's refreshing to see a documentary that proudly sides with Venezuela's poor.

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