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The Realest Reality Show in the World
A ribbon unfurls in the colors of the Venezuelan flag, while a drum roll announces the show’s title sequence and a trumpet tootles. Block-letter words pop up on the screen: “humanity,” “struggle,” “socialism.” It looks for all the world like a “Daily Show” parody. And then comes a close-up of the show’s host and star, Hugo Chávez, president of Venezuela, usually dressed in all red or a military jacket, sometimes crowned with a Che-style beret, standing on the road among his supporters or before a live audience at Miraflores Palace in Caracas. The show is entirely unscripted. Chávez usually begins by stating the date and saying, “Aló Presidente!” then grinning and giving himself a round of applause. “Aló Presidente!” he repeats and you can’t tell if he’s introducing the program by its title or simply greeting and congratulating himself.
“Aló Presidente” (“Hello President”) is broadcast live in Venezuela on Sundays from 11 a.m. until Chávez is done talking, which can take anywhere from four to eight hours. It is the only television show in the world in which a head of state regularly invites cameras to follow him as he governs. (Two other South American presidents, Evo Morales of Bolivia and Rafael Correa of Ecuador, briefly spun off their own shows after appearing as guests on “Aló Presidente” and being interviewed Oprah-style by Chávez.) But with the exception of the logorrheic Fidel Castro, it’s hard to imagine another political figure with the combination of manic exhibitionism and entertainer’s stamina required to star in this sort of show, never mind the autocratic control required to make it, literally, must-see TV in his home country.
The show has been running for more than a decade. In its most infamous scene, from 2006, Chávez sits at a desk in a field before a collection of rural supporters, while cows swish their tails behind him. “You are an ignorant man,” he says, looking straight into the camera, addressing President George W. Bush, whom for the purposes of the show he has nicknamed Mr. Danger after a villain in a popular Venezuelan novel. It is the height of the Iraq war. “You are a donkey, Mr. Danger,” Chávez says, then goes on to call him a coward, assassin and genocidist. “It’s very easy to command an army from far away,” he says. “If one day you ever get the crazy idea of invading Venezuela, I’ll be waiting for you on this savanna.” His eyes blaze. The crowd cheers. “Come on here, Mr. Danger!” he cries. “Come on here, Mr. Danger!”
The driving principle behind “Aló Presidente” is that the revolution will be televised, at great length. We follow Chávez as he visits housing projects, cuts ribbons at factory openings and expropriates businesses and private property “owned by the bourgeoisie” for the state. “Expropriate it!” is Chávez’s catchphrase, his version of “You’re fired!” When he points at a building and says, “Exprópiese!” it’s always a cue for applause from his followers.
In fact, Chávez makes so much policy, ad hoc, on the show that cabinet members and army officials are required to attend tapings just to keep up. In 2008, live, Chávez reacted to news that the Colombian Army had made an incursion into Ecuador to kill a FARC leader — “a good revolutionary, I knew him personally” — by ordering a mustachioed general in the audience to send 10 battalions to the border. This caused a near-war and full-on diplomatic crisis. It was questionable policy. But it certainly made for great TV.
This kind of unexplained turn can help explain why a four-hour show made up of presidential rambling can be compelling, especially from afar. The show’s cheap production values and quirky theme music bring to mind nothing so much as an old-school cable-access TV show, of the kind that used to play in New York City in the 1980s — shows that were part performance art and part gleeful absurdism, like “Mrs. Mouth,” which starred an upside-down person’s chin dressed as a woman. These shows were distinct for their complete unpredictability, of a type that has since beat a full retreat onto the Internet. “Aló Presidente” has that same wacky quality. The difference is that Mrs. Mouth wasn’t the autocratic leader of an oil-rich country of 29 million people.
Despite the long run of “Aló Presidente,” I’d never watched it until this year; I’d seen Chávez’s pronouncements quoted in news articles, so I’d always imagined the show to be a straightforward political address. I discovered its exuberant weirdness only after I began following Chávez on Twitter, then idly clicked on links to clips of the show. At first, I was puzzled and entertained by its format and tone. What was this weird mash-up of state of the union, variety hour, propaganda newsreel and talk show? Chávez’s folksy patter, with digressions about baseball and his own gastrointestinal difficulties and the occasional crooned folk song, doesn’t at all resemble how heads of state usually comport themselves on TV. (As for foreign affairs, Chávez always likes to mix in some warmongering and crowd-pleasing Yanqui baiting, having moved on from Bush to Obama.) And watching a show that was so obviously meant for other eyes — that is, the citizens of Venezuela — seemed to me, on my couch in Brooklyn, surreal and even slightly voyeuristic.
I started watching as a lark but became fascinated with the show when I realized, with some unease, that it was the most real reality TV I’d ever seen. Most shows called “reality TV” are marked by a strong measure of fakery. Strangers are stuffed into a house together or “stranded” on an island. Bachelors artificially vie for the affections of a surgically enhanced bachelorette. Chávez’s show not only reflects reality, it also affects reality. Whatever he says on air, whatever he orders his inferiors to do, however he decides to spend public money, becomes law and policy right away. It’s not Monopoly money that he’s throwing around. In that sense, it’s the only really real reality show out there.
As a piece of pure political theater, one precedent for the show is F.D.R.’s fireside chats, the innovation of which was to make the president sound casual and unguarded. But Chávez, like F.D.R., has not embraced total transparency — especially when it comes to his own physical frailty. Chávez had a cancerous tumor removed last year, and instead of allowing cameras to follow him through treatment and convalescence in a Cuban hospital, he temporarily canceled the show and stifled information about his medical condition to such an extent that we still don’t know what kind of cancer he has. His health, or his perceived health, will be a big factor in the October elections, which Chávez could conceivably lose to a younger, more vigorous challenger. Recently, Chávez returned to Cuba for further medical care, suspending the show again.
In January, after his first rounds of chemotherapy, I tuned in for episode No. 376, filmed on a visit to the Orinoco oil belt. Chávez looked paler, his face swollen, but was as expansive as ever, announcing that Venezuela would refuse to participate in a World Bank arbitration panel that could award billions to ExxonMobil after Chávez expropriated its assets, and implementing a new social program with the Orwellian name the Great Mission Knowledge and Work. Then he made visits to various oil facilities, and footage of him disembarking to cries of “Viva!” alternated with long shots between stops, taken from inside his jeep, of rain falling on the gray road.
During my first few hours of watching “Aló Presidente,” I felt a mild thrill: the anticipation that the host might make some unexpected move that would affect millions of people. Eventually, though, the show’s relentless sameness began to resemble a different aspect of reality — tedium — and soon I felt as if I were watching the TV equivalent of Andy Warhol’s “Empire.” I’d get up to fetch something to eat, and when I returned, there he was, still filling my screen, smiling, proclaiming, self-satisfied, eternal. A normal show could never get away with this, of course. But when you flip through the channels of a Sunday in Caracas, it’s all “Aló Presidente,” all the time.
But then, the show’s intended audience may be watching with a very different perspective. The historian Enrique Krauze has written that “Aló Presidente” gives Venezuelans “at least the appearance of contact with power, through his verbal and visual presence, which may be welcomed by people who have spent most of their lives being ignored.” While poverty has fallen under Chávez, more than a quarter of the population of Venezuela still lives under the poverty line; inflation last year was second only to Ethiopia’s; the slums of Caracas are more dangerous than Baghdad or Ciudad Juárez. As in most Latin American countries, poverty tracks with race, and leaders tend to be “white,” which is to say of Spanish ancestry. So it would be hard to overstate the pride that Venezuela’s poorest and most marginalized feel in having a black-white-indigenous man as their democratically elected president. But there is no real way of knowing how many people, even among his supporters, follow him on TV.
In one of the more surreal segments, an interviewer stops passers-by on the street in Caracas and asks them whether they watch the show. “Yes, with great frequency,” replies an earnest man in glasses. Why? asks the interviewer. “It’s the best way to inform ourselves, with the most clarity,” he replies. “The president tells us everything, he hides nothing.” One girl says she watches to “absorb our leader’s wise words.” Some of these people chosen apparently at random may in fact be true believers. But if one of them said, “I don’t watch it because I think Chávez is a clown and a tyrant,” the show might take a darker turn. These interviews also mark the moment that “Aló Presidente” finally folds into a house of mirrors: forcing citizens to play the role of engaged viewers while appearing on the show in order to persuade other real-life viewers that the citizens are engaged.
In the end, it doesn’t matter much what these people say when the cameras are rolling; and, of course, the opposite is true of Chávez, whose utterances to the camera matter supremely. Anything he decides or does or says on the show instantly becomes the audience’s reality, in a tangible way, regardless of whether they are watching. In this sense, “Aló Presidente” is unlike anything else on television. A TV show in America, no matter how engaging or successful or artfully put together, is always, in essence, a distraction from life. “Aló Presidente” inverts this formula, at least for Venezuelans. Instead of high entertainment value with no real-life significance, it offers low entertainment value with absolute significance. From the safety of my couch, if I become frustrated or bored or enraged or no longer amused, I can interrupt Chávez midsentence, reach out, just turn him off and he is gone. In his own country, it doesn’t matter if people watch or not. The Chávez show goes on (and on), and it is the exact same thing as real life.