Hugo Chávez must really be dying. The New York Times is disgorging itself of its accumulated cache of puff pieces on the Venezuelan dictator in the hope that it will do him some good, since psychologically it appears that he's failing even faster than physically, and his psyche was never as dependable as his stamina. The article in The Times Sunday Magazine [May 6], entitled "Must Watch Television. Literally," and subtitled "Hugo Chávez's long-running, totally bizarre talk show, 'Aló Presidente,' is a throwback to an earlier era and a completely different kind of reality TV," unravels in the first paragraph whose concluding sentence can also serve for its motif: "The show is entirely unscripted." It is also "compelling, especially from afar," "surreal and even slightly voyeuristic," "part performance art and part gleeful absurdism," instinct with a "wacky quality" and "exuberant weirdness," which left the author "fascinated," "puzzled and entertained" -- and even "mildly thrilled" -- by "the most real reality show I'd ever seen," and again, within the same paragraph, "the only really real reality show out there." When Donald Trump "fires" an "apprentice," it's not real. But when Hugo Chávez fires a judge, he had better flee the country if he can and while he can. Yes, reality doesn't get any more real than that. A gun at your back is always real and compelling. Whether it should be "entertaining" or "mildly thrilling" to a third party is another question.
The author, Rachel Nolan, first saw clips of Chávez's show while following him on Twitter. Later she must have acquired the complete collection, of, say, a 1000 DVDs, and admits to watching "Aló Presidente" for hours on end. In what is undoubtedly the highest compliment that The Times can pay to Chávez or anybody, Nolan writes that "one precedent for his show is F.D.R.'s fireside chats" (which proves that she never listened to those). Another precedent, unmentioned by Nolan, is Joseph Goebbels' weekly "guns or butter" radio exhortations. Chávez's television persona has little in common with Roosevelt's dignified avuncular presentation, but there is a direct line of descent from Goebbels' on-air histrionics, with the same name-calling and threats, real and veiled. Chávez's buffoonery, however, is copied from his mentor Fidel Castro, who was always a carnival barkman for big and small ideas whose time had passed; and his show, in particular, is inspired by Castro's last performance on state television in an infomercial for a (defective) rice cooker, which he boasted could "make more rice with less rice."
Chávez's own bizarre conduct on "Aló Presidente" — which shames all self-respecting Venezuelans — Nolan is inclined to excuse because (quoting Enrique Krauze) "it gives Venezuelans at least the appearance of contact with power" (the kind of "empowerment" experienced by Hitler's German shepherds), and because, in her own estimation, "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." To say that this alleged "pride would be hard to overstate" — that is, that almost any exaggeration of it would be allowed — calls into question the very thing that is being claimed. It would be as ridiculous to assert that the 50%+ of the population that do not support Chávez (who are, also, overwhelmingly non-white) are ashamed of him because he is black-white-indigenous like them. If Chávez were white, of course, the author would write about the pride that Venezuelans feel in having as their president a white man who feels and acts, with and for, the black-white-indigenous people. The U.S. media did that for Bill Clinton when they labelled him "the first African-American president;" surely they would have acclaimed Chávez the "white hope" of the mestizos if he had not himself been one. It is Chávez's politics that matter to the media elite, not his color. Batista wasn't white, and the pride that Cuba's poor and marginalized felt for this self-made-man was so great that they sat out Castro's middle-class revolution. Of course that did not stop The New York Times from supporting Castro.
The repeated suspension of "Aló Presidente" while Chávez seeks medical treatment in Cuba is more newsworthy today than the show itself ever was. This hiatus or "non-show" is Venezuela's version of "Beat the Clock," except that if Chávez can't an entire nation wins. And not just Venezuelans. Cubans also have an interest in the outcome, although history has shown that the Castros can survive without a sucker to stake them, and have no compunction at all — in fact, may prefer — to starve the Cuban people into submission rather than lull them into complacency with half rations. The co-dictators' only concern is that without Venezuela's oil they may actually have to liquidate some of the family's foreign assets to underwrite the machinery of repression on the island. That would hurt them, and both Fidel and Raúl have a very low threshold for pain as most sadists do.