Sunday, December 14, 2003

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (movie)

If you get the chance to see this film -- probably the time an attempted coup has been documented from the inside -- do it. This is history, high drama, and political intrigue at its finest.

Irish documentarians Kim Bartley and Donnacha O'Briain were in Venezuela months before the coup began, making a movie about the country's lef-leaning president, Hugo Chavez, whose detractors (including the oiligarchy and the corporate media) paint him as a Castro-esque tyrant, and whose support comes from the 80% of the population that lives in or near poverty. Although they did make a film about Chavez, they unexpectedly found themselves in the heart of a coup d'etat.

The film is great for many reason, not just because the events are so unbelievable but because the filmmakers have so much access to events on the inside of the Presidential palace as the balance of power flip-flops. They caught just about every important development, and present the coup as it unfolds in a quick, tight and thorough manner.

The strategy of the coup-makers seemed to follow the traditional playbook set out in Luttwak's book (and CIA manuals). First, the 20% of the population that hate Chavez (the upper class and corporate technocrats) are mobilized to march on the Presidential palace. When they're close to confronting the thousands of Chavez supporters that defiantly defend Chavez by surrounding the Presidential palace, snipers start suddenly shooting down from high-rise balconies.

The corporate-owned media (4 of 5 channels) begin to tip the balance in favor of the crisis by repeatedly showing footage of Chavez supporters firing pistols at some unseen targets. (The insinuation being that they are the snipers, rather than firing back under fire -- one in four Venezolanos carries a pistol). The bias of the commerical media -- just like it was during the Iraq war -- is so blatant that it's clear that in times of crisis, the other side needs its own means of communication.

At this point, the elite military move in with tanks, surrounding the Palace and cutting off the state-owned news channel (the only one that Chavez and his supporters have to get their message out). After the military coup-leaders storm the palace, Chavez refused to resign, so they "arrest" him (essentially kidnap him, and remove him to an offshore island).

At this point, when all seems lost, interesting things begin to happen that restores one's faith in the people. Despite the coup-plotters' control of the media and the military and a vocal 20% of the population (and well wishers in Washington and their proxies sitting offshore), the vast majority of the people begin to protest en masse.

After his election in 1998, Chavez worked hard to build the strength of community-based organizations. These groups taught people how to read, and one of the key documents people became literate in is the country's Constitution. As a result, a groundswell of resistance to the illegal coup begins to grow in the slums, and come down from the hills like a mudslide.

Despite facing police violence, tens of thousands of people re-surrounded the Palace.

Next, the palace guard turn around and arrest the coup-plotters, the cabinet is brought back in from hiding, and the state TV station is brought back online as news comes in from military barracks all over the country that most of the military did not support the coup. Eventually, Chavez is brought back by helicopter. (Barranco, the illegitimate president, moved to Miami.)

There are a lot of lessons in this movie about the role of the media, how popular governments are paid back when they organize and educate their base of support, and how careful the U.S. government is to not to leave any fingerprints when it meddles in the affairs of other countries. (It's still left unclear if the coup was organized and orchestrated by the CIA, but there is lots of evidence suggesting U.S. involvement, particularly given the fact that the coup's plotters were seen going in and out of the U.S. embassy in Caracas in the months leading up to the coup. The New York Times reported that the National Endowment for Democracy (a CIA conduit in the past) funded groups opposed to Chavez. ("Of particular concern is $154,377 given by the endowment to the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, the international arm of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., to assist the main Venezuelan labor union in advancing labor rights." -- The Venzuelan unions led the anti-Chavez protests before the coup. And the Center for International Labor Solidarity is the successor to AIFLD, which was notorious for collaborating with the CIA in countries like Honduras and Guatemala, where death squads regularly targeted labor leaders in the 1980s.)

More on Venezuela and the film:
Gregory Wilpert's account from Venezuela
London Observer: coup plot linked to Bush
Mark Weisbrot: Bush still pushing for regime change in Venezuela
NYTimes Review of this movie.
Iran-Contra figure Otto Reich's role in the coup and demotion after it failed.