On April 12th 2002 the world awoke to the news that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez had been removed from office and had been replaced by a new interim government. What had in fact taken place was the first Latin American coup of the 21st century, and the world's first media coup...
In April 2002, a group of Irish filmmakers were filming a documentary on popular Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. They followed his tour throughout the country, and videotaped the support of his people, and got exclusive interviews with him describing the President's stance on Neo-Liberal policy and free-market economies. They actually showed the realism of a leader, and Chavez was beloved by his people because he seemed so in touch with the poor. Chavez would go into poor areas with an entourage, and try to get the support of his people and stress the need for education and democracy. During this, the poor pressed notes into the hand of the President ("Mr President, I need a bag of cement . . . " was one such letter).
Chavez is a very charismatic man. He gained election through a landslide. He became the latest Latin American leader "attempting to peel away the layers of the banana republic," as one pundit put it. He encouraged the setting up of community cells and educational workshops, as well as re-wrote the constitution, with the support of the majority. He set about re-distributing the money earned from his country's vast oil supply, dismantling the corruption of the state oil company.
Not everyone was pleased however. The opposition party disliked many of the President's attributes. It was not mainly a class struggle, though the filmmakers did view the middle-classes at their meetings ("Keep an eye on your domestic servants"). Many wanted a free-market economy, despite the fact that it could make the poor poorer. The leaders of the State Oil Company were also the leaders of the opposition party, and wanted it more like a business with private ownership than public, as the president had.
However, on April 11, 2002, Opposition forces stormed the Palace and engineered a Coup. This was a day after an anti-Chavez protest was held purposefully nearby a pro-Chavez rally. Obviously, it led to a fight, and a few people died. The Opposition party blamed Chavez personally, which became their ostensible reason for the overthrow. Chavez was forcibly removed from office, and the state-run television station was overtaken by coup members. The entire coup was recorded on film by these filmmakers and the ensuing struggle and rebellion by the people to restore their popular government.
The opposition party, led by a rich businessman, announced that it had created a new Transitional Government to assume power for the time being. They announced that the former president had resigned (when in fact he had been arrested and flown to a secluded island in preparation to exile him). Despite massive protests in the streets, the private news stations refused to air any footage of this, instead only showing demonstrations in support for the new government.
Chavez is no friend to the US. He went on television to denounce the US bombing of civilians in Afghanistan, brandishing pictures of dead children. He is a public friend to Fidel Castro. Immediately, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer announced that the president of Venezuela had resigned and that George W. Bush threw his support behind the newer (and he implied "better") government. Also included in the film were several clips of US Congressional Hearings where CIA director George Tenet made vague prophesizing threats that Venezuela had to bow to US interests. As the President of Venezuela and his ministers were trapped in the Presidential Palace before the Coup leaders began the shelling, you could hear muttering by many that the CIA was helping in this.
Within 24 hours of the Coup, the people fought back with the support of the majority of the military, retaking the Palace and state television station. They promoted the Vice President in the President's absence, following Constitutional protocol, and embarked on a rescue mission to recover the President. They got him back just before he was going to be put on a private plane and flown out. (It's never said in the film who the plane belonged to, leaving the audience to speculate whether it was the US government or the Opposition chartering a plane.)
The filmmakers are rarely shown in the documentary, and aren't seen doing any actions, they're unobtrusive, even in their narration. Yes, they made their sympathies clear, but they saved their film for the people around them. You get glimpses of the plotters, as well as the defenders. You see the dead, even before they hit the ground. The thousands crushing up against the gates of the Palace. The soldiers in secret preparation to retake that building. I have to say that this film was pretty gripping, and very contemporary.
The film was shot almost entirely in Spanish, with english subtitles and narration. The film records the remarkable events of when President Chavez was forcibly removed from office. They were also present 48 hours later when, remarkably, he returned to power amid cheering aides. Their film records what was probably history's shortest-lived coup d'état and the first South American coup of the 21st century. Think of it as perhaps the original idea behind the film Once Upon a Time in Mexico.
I found this movie to be amazing, giving you a behind the scenes look at a situation most only saw a blurb of on the nightly news. What many people in the audience found shocking was how the President was arrested and detained, while the overthrower claimed that the President had voluntarily resigned. NBC Nightly News reiterated the claim, making the world think that a legitimate power change took place, when in reality it was like there was a 48-hour civil war in the streets.
Amazingly, due to Chavez's education of the public so well in terms of teaching the masses to read the Constitution of Venezuela, they understood what was going on and actually managed to reverse the overthrow, reinstating President Chavez within 48 hours. This was an impressive feat considering there were 5 television stations in Venezuela, 1 state run and 4 privately run. The four stations viciously attacked the president on many issues, and spun the issue, even telling lies in places to demonize the president and accuse him of being Hitler. When the overthrow took place, they tried to tell the majority that this was a great new thing for the people, when there was actually rioting in the streets.
Americans watching this film should learn of several things.
1. Do not trust everything the White House spokesman says. The evidence in this film was a serious blow to their credibility.
2. Be wary of privately-owned news outlets, the ones in Venezuela in particular were so devious that the audience viewing the film was shocked at how boldly they could lie. It was a poison seeping into the wider world. When the coup was reported in the Western media, it was done using footage broadcast by these private channels, mainly that of pro-Chavez supporters apparently firing on an anti-Chavez march as it made its way to the Presidential Palace. If you panned back, though, you would have seen that there were no protesters on the street below, and that those shooting were attempting to protect themselves from the sniper fire that left 10 people dead. The camera had panned back, but the footage had been edited to remove that bit.
3. Don't always trust CNN. They were interviewing the newly-installed President via phone and he lied that he was in control at the Palace, where in reality the Palace was back under control of the previous (legitimate) administration, and he obviously wasn't there.
4. Question what you see about other countries' politics. This includes Haiti, Iran, Iraq, etc. which all fell victim to the same traps. An opposition member later boasted on television when he thought it was over that he planned the riot out to act in his favor, deliberately firing the first shots and then blaming it on the president, with doctored footage to help his case. International media then ran the video, trusting the news station's integrity.
This film has won multiple awards, including Best Documentary in Italy and in Britain. It was going to be aired at Amnesty International's Canadian Festival, but they received a threat by certain Venezuelans of violence, so they omitted it.
It is now on Youtube in its entirety.