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By Bryan Newbury
December 19, 2006

“April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.”

T.S. Eliot
That The Revolution Will Not Be Televised is the most essential viewing for one who endeavors to understand international politics could scarcely be disputed. Whether it is more valuable as a portrait of emerging democracy in Latin America or an account of media manipulation by private industry is up for debate.

As the Irish film crew, led by Kim Bartley and Donnacha O Briain, captures tense moments inside the presidential palace, the role of media (and subsequently, historians) is illustrated perfectly. While Hugo Chavez’ ministers are languishing in the palace, which is under threat of cannon fire should Chavez not surrender himself to the coup d’etat, one is filmed exclaiming that “[T]hey can’t destroy history.” Can’t they, now?

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised illustrates a number of issues with Latin America in general and Venezuela in particular, but the idea of destroying history is at the forefront. As one watches the film, it is alluring to contemplate just how much of history is reliable. And just how much could well be laughable. Were it not for the filmmakers arriving in Caracas in September of 2001 to shoot a documentary about the populist President of Venezuela, the official story would appear as some bastard doppelganger inverse to actual fact. That ironies seem to compound in relation to the film is symptomatic of the state of North and Latin American media it seems to decry.

In fact, the Venezuelan media, mainly through private television stations, set out to do just what the minister said they couldn’t. Through the course of The Revolution… we see that private media in Venezuela could be aptly described as “Orwellian” were there some sense of subtlety in their jockeying. Luckily for us in the United States, our media is a bit more disciplined in this regard.

Prepare to acknowledge that almost everything you know about Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is inaccurate. This isn’t your fault. Bartley and O Briain take us through a detailed exposition of the Venezuelan public, their history and just how a man like Chavez assumes power. Eighty percent of that public lives in poverty. Chavez seeks to redistribute the vast oil wealth that has been enjoyed by a small white minority in a country that is largely negros y indios. That 80 percent is his political base. Little wonder he has been elected, re-elected, overthrown and reinstated… then re-elected a few more times. The portion of the film leading up to the coup is equally as enlightening as the scenes of the overthrow itself. Chavez speaks directly with the public on a call-in show on state-owned Channel Eight. He greets crowds of enthusiastic supporters. His staff is weighed down with letter upon letter from Venezuelan proletariats who are sure of his sympathetic ear. Meanwhile, the five private television stations are crying out in protest for Mr. Chavez to step down.

To the American viewer, it seems incongruous. After all, CNN itself echoed these cries. CNN Mexico anointed opposition leader Pedro Carmona rightful leader of the Bolivarian Republic scant hours into the coup. Hugo was a tyrant, wasn’t he?

The assertion that Chavez behaves as a dictator is roundly refuted by the evidence in The Revolution. What kind of a dictator allows this type of press freedom? What despot suffers the barbs of his opposition so lightly?

It is true that Chavez is a dangerous man. He has armed himself with a weapon that is frightening to oligarchs the world over: a population who is fully aware of their constitutional rights. Bartley and O Briain take us into the barrios situated atop Caracas and show us another viewpoint one is unlikely to encounter via the mainstream media. Dozens of disaffected Venezuelans declare that they are now engaged in politics. One declares that “[F]or the first time in Venezuela we have a democracy.” The sentiment is echoed again and again.

Across town, the predominantly European-bred wealthy aren’t so enthused with this brand of egalitarian governance. A “Residents’ Meeting” is filmed, and the speaker is busy counseling the participants to “keep an eye on your domestic servants… We know many of them are linked to Bolivarian circles.” He then proceeds to give a bit of a primer on responsible use of handguns.

February 2002 served as the straw breaking the petrocamel’s back. It was then that Chavez announced restructuring of the oil industry. This put the coup d’etat in motion.

In April, a march was organized by the opposition. Again, it is enchanting to speculate just how the scenes in Caracas would be related by history were it not for the Irish filmmakers. As we see on private television, a number of Chavismos were firing upon the peaceable demonstration of the opposition on the street below. U.S. television provided the same images. In The Revolution, we’re treated to a camera angle neither group saw fit to show us: that of the street in question, which was empty.

Further, the film crew shot a good deal inside the palace during the coup. The scenes of ministers ushered out of the palace under threat of violence blend nicely with footage of a Venezuelan morning show where the panel describes in detail just how they worked to stage the overthrow.

With Hugo the Terrible gone, opposition leader Pedro Carmona assumes power. His newly appointed attorney general describes to a cheering crowd of tens that the government, from National Assembly and Supreme Court to Ombudsman… all the vestiges of democratic rule, according to Noam Chomsky in a recent address to Massachusetts Global Action… will be dissolved. Surprisingly, these denizens of democracy engage in repression from the outset. There is little in the way of ambiguity here. Citizens are attacked and shot, private television enforces a new code of censorship, and the March of the Covert Battalions runs roughshod through Caracas.

The speed with which the palace intrigue occurred is dizzying. In just a few hours this scene is supplanted by the Palace Guard positioning themselves to retake the building from Carmona’s people while thousands of Chavez supporters gather outside. If you were watching television, you’d have missed that they succeeded in arresting many of the coup leaders (though Carmona and a few generals managed to escape) and reestablishing the legitimately elected Venezuelan government. Channel Eight might have reported it, but the signal was somehow cut the night of 11 April 2002.

As the coup leaders are being detained, the viewer is treated to an odd scene. The original attorney general reassumes his role, and quickly declares to his erstwhile successor that he and his compatriots are entitled to their constitutional rights. To wade deeper into Kafkaesque waters, Carmona declares on CNN that Venezuela is in a state of normalcy and that the palace is still under his control. The ruse works until around 8 o’clock Saturday night, when Channel Eight is on the air again.

The film elicits a number of questions. It is hard not to think of Aristide as we learn that a plane of American registration has landed on the island where Chavez was being detained. Rumors fly amongst the reinstated ministers that he is to be transported to the Dominican Republic. Speculation ceases at 2:50 Sunday, 14 April 2002, when Hugo arrives to an ecstatic crowd in Caracas.

Among the questions that could be asked is whether Chavez and his comrades in South America from Correa to Morales are in some ways ahistoric. The metaphorical implications of an April coup are legion. As the first stanza of “The Waste Land” might be recast for our purposes, a new face emerges from the ruins and, should the interests of the powerful be served, must return to them. It has been the case with countless men of the people from Torrijos to Sandino to Mossadegh. Will it be the case in the twenty first century, awash in digital cameras and citizen reporters? Could history be undergoing a polar shift, and are we about to awake from Joyce’s nightmare?

Returning to compound ironies, it is likely that you will have some difficulty seeing The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. Power Pictures seems intent upon not distributing it, and the lengths to which one must go just to obtain the film border on odyssean. The stranglehold of mainstream media on the popular conscience would be disheartening for activists worldwide were it not for the fact that this condition is increasingly isolated to the United States and Great Britain. If it is in fact a turning of the year wheel towards popular rule, we in the English speaking world could some day look to this film in particular as the clarion call.

It is also possible that Hugo Chavez is just, in Eliot’s terms, il miglior fabbro this time around.


The Revolution Will Not Be Televised or, Chavez: Inside the Coup

Color, 74 minutes, 2002

Kim Bartley & Donnacha O Briain

Peter Hebard on January 18th, 2007 at 6:50 pm 

Niether nor Netflix carries “The Revolution WIll Not be Televised.” Do you know where we could obtain a copy in DVD or videocassette format? Thanks.

John Bradlee on February 5th, 2007 at 7:55 am 

For a copy of the DVD try:

edp on June 1st, 2008 at 12:46 pm 

“The assertion that Chavez behaves as a dictator is roundly reputed by the evidence in The Revolution.”

Sheesh! Does anybody READ any more? Clearly REFUTED is meant.

Chad on February 11th, 2009 at 4:39 pm 

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