Don’t Cry for Me, Venezuela

Hugo Chávez sin uniforme: Una historia personal

by Cristina Marcano and Alberto Barrera Tyszka
Caracas: Random House Mondadori, 413 pp., $19.95

La Revolución como espectáculo

by Colette Capriles
Caracas: Random House Mondadori, 213 pp., $16.75

Hugo Chávez
Hugo Chávez; drawing by David Levine

On the reality show that Hugo Chávez, President of Venezuela, stages at irregular but frequent intervals for the benefit of his nation, he is the only star. Most Sundays, he can be seen on the all-day program Aló Presidente, which is obligatory viewing for anyone who might be interested in knowing what will be on the political agenda the following week, but there are also unscheduled interruptions to the evening newscasts and telenovelas, when the President takes over the networks to discuss whatever might be on his mind.

Television is his natural medium: articulate, artless, more than a little hefty, completely at his ease, open-faced and just-folksy even when he is denouncing the press or a laggard member of his own cabinet, Chávez is indisputably fascinating, and often even endearing, when he takes over the airwaves. On Aló Presidente, which tends to start around 11 AM, he might reminisce about an episode of his past life, like the failed military golpe, or coup, that first brought him to public attention back in 1992, when he was an idealistic lieutenant colonel. (At times like this, he is likely to recite a poem, or sing.)

The President also briefly shares the screen with the studio guests. He asks beneficiaries of a particular government program to describe their part in it. Visiting intellectuals and ambassadors are asked to greet the crowd. Members of his cabinet give an accounting of themselves. Front-row guests listen and applaud, and also, perhaps, think longingly about supper and the bathroom—for once admitted to a performance that lasts much longer than the Oscars, guests cannot leave—while Chávez discourses on politics, Jesus Christ, history, the week’s events, baseball, and, at great length, himself. The Chávez show goes on forever, but, like any reality program, it never lasts quite long enough: Who will he rebuke, or dismiss, on the air? What will he say to his wife on the eve of Valentine’s Day? (The correct answer is: “Marisabel, tomorrow I’m giving you yours.”) And, since he has already persuaded the aging world-famous crooner Julio Iglesias to warble “O Sole Mio” along with Jiang Zemin, then president of the People’s Republic of China, and himself, who will he sing with next?

When he takes over all the private television stations for a talk—forming a “national network”—he is usually on his own:

Hello, my friends! A very good evening to you. National network. No time limits. We’ve gone back to the original strategy. We’d made a change, a curveball on the outside corner for a few weeks with the Thursday national networks, but no, tonight we’re going back to the original pitch; that is, whenever it’s convenient, every time it’s convenient. It could be one national network a week, or three or four a week, according to the dynamic of events. Or once a month. We’ll see. We’ll evaluate as we go according to…

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