What is Behind the TV Series on Hugo Chavez?

Supuesto Negado unpacks the political and cultural implications of Sony's new TV series on the life of late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. 

By Supuesto Negado

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Official portal image for Sony's new series on the life of Hugo Chávez. (Archive)
Official portal image for Sony's new series on the life of Hugo Chávez. (Archive)
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What are the intentions behind a [new television] series on commander Chavez? Conspiracy or commercialisation? Or is it just a new product in the cultural industry? We investigate here. 

“Power and money are like drugs: you always want more,” this is what Hugo Chavez says in the first trailer for the series “El Comandante” which brings to the screen aspects of his life. Fidel Castro appears and a lot of people behave and speak in melodramatic ways, as one supposes that powerful people do. 

And so it’s clear that it’s set in Venezuela, a lot of people also say “Coño”*. 

Produced by Sony Pictures, the series was announced in May this year and the promotional trailer was shown on October 24, 2016. Recording started in June. 

The series is important: it is Telemundo’s first incursion into “biopics”, which until now have had their mecca in Colombia, and it is the first one that is about a political leader. 

Biopic

A biopic is the biography of a noteworthy person. In Latin America it is usually presented as a television series. It lasts longer than a mini series, but is shorter than an actual series. 

In Latin America the success of the biopic is due, above all, to Colombian television. After the exhaustion of the “narco-soaps”, the biopic became the next “chicken that lays the golden eggs”. From the patriot Policarpa Zalavarrietta, to the Castaño brothers, the founders of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, the members of the 1990 World Cup football team and Pablo Escobar, all have had their biopic. 

Chavez’s appears to be Sony-Telemundo’s first foray into this business as well as into introducing new themes, in this case, politics. 

The old cultural criticism of the left, which wasn’t very good, attributed all of these cultural products to imperialist propaganda. But basically, all this is a business that hopes to build new markets, and a market is built by creating a public that “consumes” the product. 

The public is constructed via the manipulation of many things such as the “ideological environment” but also through the tastes and beliefs of people. And people love stories about powerful people, especially those who were able to “rise above” their class conditions. 

Here is where politics comes into play: originally Colombian biopics, produced by openly Uribista** television channels, reflected the “ideological environment” of this period: sympathy for paramilitarism and its complicity with drugs smuggling, but also admiration for those who had “triumphed” in life. 

As this period came to an end, the demand for these products began to die off, and it is proven that celebrity biopics had brought in money for the industry over the previous few years. Now they are focusing on what is “aspirational”, on how people identify with the stories in which people “make it out of the ghetto”. 

This story of success and “overcoming” is what unites the biopic with its sister, the soap opera.

The Demise of Soap Operas  

In previous decades, the soap opera was a form of entertainment that was sufficient for the Latin American public. However, as these societies became more urban and life became more complex, a simple romantic melodrama between a couple was not enough for the public.

It’s because we are not that simple, right?

That’s why the soap opera had to mutate. This mutation started in the 1980s but it became consolidated in the twenty first Century with products such as Ugly Betty– a workplace novel which is also a comedy– and Brazil Avenue, a story about the social environment of the new middle class that was born under Lula***.

The era of the good Martin Barbero, when everybody cried over the disgraces that befell the “young woman” are long gone, and the industry knows it. How will Latin American show business survive the era of a Game of Thrones, Mr. Robot and True Detective? Amongst other things, thanks to the mutation of the melodrama: although the soap opera will continue to exist for a good while longer, the drama is now about the struggles and personal difficulties, the triumphs and agonies of he who, in some way or another, has managed to leave his lowly origins and move up to high society. 

It is the melodrama of idols and icons. 

The Villain

Sony has astutely placed the actor Andrés Parra, who played Pablo Escobar in the Boss of Evil, in the role of Chávez. Evidently they want to put them both in the same category of the “villain with a heart of gold”. 

It is evident that, given the conjuncture, there is an attempt to demystify Chávez, aesthetically and ideologically, and to combat him and his legacy. Converting him into a villain or a caricature is part of the creation of an anti-Chavista or post-Chavista ideological environment. 

But it’s important not to forget that what the cultural industry wants and needs, above all, is to make money, and they will not do anything that doesn’t mean profit. 

Consequently, any regard for propaganda is submitted to this commercial imperative and combined with it. 

Telemundo doesn’t just want to change the image of Hugo Chavez, but to exploit it alongside his charisma, and his history of dramatic twists and turns. 

Chavez’s life has a touch of the rebellious commander Perón, of Evita and of Bolivar. Who hasn’t thought about using his “for now,****” his return to power after three days, the drama of his premature death or the multitudinous marches as part of a televised drama?

It seems that Chavez will be presented as a villain, but as an attractive one, and that could be the reason for casting the charismatic Andrés Parra, widely praised for his interpretation of Pablo Escobar. A villain who can attract the public, not just to the anti-Castro lobby of always, but also to a public which is sufficiently large and diverse to guarantee the success of the biopic. 

This success will depend mostly on how this portrait of Chavez comes out.

And if “El Comandante” is successful, then what next? “K for Kirchner? Fidel and Raul? The Soldier? The Story of Lula?  

Translated and edited by Rachael Boothroyd-Rojas for Venezuelanalysis.com. 

* Coño generally means “fuck” in Venezuela and is usually used to express anger or surprise. The phrase is recognised in Latin America as characteristic of Venezuelan Spanish.

** “Uribista” refers to supporters of far-right Colombian senator and ex-president Alvaro Uribe, who is closely aligned with the paramilitary armies, such as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, which serve the country’s landed elites.

*** Former President of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva, for the Workers’ Party.

**** Chavez made his legendary “for now” speech during a 2 minute televised interview in 1992 in which the then-paratrooper commander took responsibility for a failed coup against Carlos Andres Perez and called on his troops to give themselves in to authorities. Chavez told the troops and the general public that “unfortunately our objectives have not been achieved for now”. The speech is enshrined within Venezuela’s collective historical memory as one of the most important moments in the trajectory of the revolution.