The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (Ireland, directors Kim Bartley and Donnacha O’Briain): Wow. This documentary was absolutely jaw-dropping. The directors travelled to Venezuela to make a profile of President Hugo Chavez, and in the course of their seven month stay, were witnesses to the bizarre 48-hour coup which took place in April 2002.
Chavez, an immensely charismatic leader, draws almost all of his support from among the poor, who make up about 80% of Venezuela’s population. Despite huge oil wealth, Venezuela has always been ruled by a small minority who have kept that wealth in the hands of the few. Chavez is obviously not a popular man among this crowd, nor in the eyes of the Bush administration, who clearly want Venezuela to remain a source of cheap oil, especially now. Chavez planned to shake up the state oil company in order to facilitate his plan to redistribute some of the wealth. This led to predictable protests from the wealthy class, who also happen to own most of the newspapers, television and radio stations in the country. This private media empire had been an unrelenting critic of the Chavez government, even in the face of genuine reforms (for instance, under Chavez, healthcare and education were made free, for the first time in Venezuela’s history!).
I don’t mean to ramble on, but it was incredible how this private media manipulated images in order to further the aims of the coup plotters. After a very tense confrontation between Chavez supporters and opposition supporters, snipers suddenly began firing on the pro-Chavez crowd, killing at least ten. In response, some of those in the crowd who had handguns (about 25% of Venezuelans, according to the film) began firing back in the direction of the sniper fire. The private media actually ran these images and declared that the Chavez supporters had fired on the opposition crowd, killing ten of them. This version of events was fed to the Western media, including CNN, who ran the manipulated footage uncritically. This crisis led directly to several high-ranking military officials calling for Chavez’ resignation, and then surrounding the palace with tanks to force it. All the while, the filmmakers were inside the palace with members of the Chavez government. Chavez refused to resign, but agreed to be taken into custody by the generals after they threatened to bomb the palace. The opposition then shut down the state TV station and broadcast that Chavez had voluntarily stepped down. In reality, he was kidnapped and held hostage on an island, unable to communicate with his ministers or family.
The “interim” government convened the next day, whereupon they dissolved the National Assembly, the Supreme Court, and dismissed the Attorney General and the Ombudsman, effectively abolishing all of Venezuela’s democratic institutions. As word filtered out to the people that Chavez had been imprisoned, and had not resigned, huge crowds began to surround the palace. Emboldened by a crowd numbering into the hundreds of thousands, the palace guards, who had remained loyal to Chavez even while continuing to do their job for the new government, hatched a plan to retake the palace. Within a few hours, they had succeeded, and although many of the coup leaders managed to escape, some were detained in the palace basement. The ministers of Chavez’ government, including the Vice President, all in hiding, were informed and all came back to claim their rightful places again. When it became clear that the rank and file of the military had not deserted Chavez, they went to release him from his island prison and he returned to Caracas in triumph.
The whole thing had taken about 48 hours, and if it hadn’t been for the massive demonstrations in support of Chavez, the coup would have succeeded. The film was an on-the-ground account and made no claims of objectivity, but the fact that so much of the story was altered or simply ignored in North America seems inexcusable.
So, although the filmmakers were simply in the right place at the right time, they also managed to cover a lot of details that were very illuminating. The fear and despair of the Chavez government ministers on the night of the palace siege, their relief and elation when they were reinstated, the protests of the ordinary citizens, and even the fears of the upper classes; all were detailed with great immediacy. A one of a kind film experience.