Danny Glover, Haiti, and the Politics of Revolutionary Cinema in Venezuela

Since the inception of the oil
industry in the early twentieth century, Venezuela has had strong
cultural ties to the United States. President Hugo Chávez however has
sought to change this by cultivating a sense of cultural nationalism in
his country.

By Nikolas Kozloff - NACLA
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Since the inception of the oil
industry in the early twentieth century, Venezuela has had strong
cultural ties to the United States. President Hugo Chávez however has
sought to change this by cultivating a sense of cultural nationalism in
his country. Perhaps the hallmark of Chávez’s new cultural policy is
Villa del Cine, a spanking new film studio. Inaugurated in June 2006
amid much fanfare, the $42 million project under the Ministry of
Culture aims to produce 19 feature-length films a year, in addition to
documentaries and television series. Through this “Bolivarian
Cinecittà,” Chávez seeks to spur production of films dealing with
social empowerment, South American history, and Venezuelan values.

Chávez himself has long favored such movies: two of Chávez’s favorite films include El Caracazo,
directed by Roman Chalbaud, which depicts popular protests and riots
against the corrupt government of Carlos Andrés Pérez in 1989. The
second, Amaneció de Golpe (The Coup Awakened) by Carlos Azpúrua, deals with Chávez’s attempted military coup against the Pérez regime in 1992.

By spurring local film production, Chávez and the staff at Villa del
Cine hope to counteract the pervasive influence of Hollywood and to
promote Venezuelan history and culture. “They [foreign films] inoculate
us with messages that have nothing to do with our traditions,” the
Venezuelan leader said during Villa del Cine’s inauguration ceremony.
Though some foreign films were “enjoyable,” Chávez remarked, most
Indians and Latin Americans in them were portrayed as people that were
“savage and dangerous, who have to be eliminated.”

“Hollywood sends a message to the world that tries to sustain the
so-called American way of life and imperialism,” he added. “It is like
a dictatorship.” Venezuela is hardly the first government to subsidize
cinematic production. In many European nations as well as Latin
American countries like Brazil and Mexico, it’s common for authorities
to provide state funding for movie making. On the other hand, Villa del
Cine has not been immune from criticism. Ironically, some charge that
the film studio is promoting Hollywood stars like Danny Glover while
neglecting the local Venezuelan film industry. The controversy has put
Villa del Cine on the defensive and led to accusations that the
facility is playing favorites.

Villa del Cine Seeks To Counteract Hollywood

While researching my latest book, Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left
(Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008), I traveled to Villa del Cine, located
outside of the Venezuelan town of Guarenas. The government had spent
lavishly there, and the facility included two film studios, audio and
video equipment, warehouses and an administrative building with areas
for post-production, animation, costumes, casting, and food service.

I sat down to speak with Lorena Almarza, Villa del Cine’s idealistic
director. A former student of social and political psychology, Almarza
became particularly interested in culture as a means of encouraging
community organization. Growing up in the western city of Barquisimeto,
she familiarized herself with the writings of such theorists as Antonio
Gramsci and Paulo Freyre. Meanwhile, she frequented local film clubs
and became interested in cinema. “Later I went to Caracas to study
psychology in the Central University,” she remarked. “I started to work
as an usher. After that I began to organize film festivals.”

Once Chávez came to power, Almarza worked with the state-run
Bolivarian schools, helping to bring movies to children and provide
manuals explaining how students might interpret images and
psychological profiles of different characters.

When I asked Almarza to talk about her work at Villa del Cine, she
explained enthusiastically that she was proud to be part of an
“experimental” state project. Historically, the Venezuelan authorities
had provided minimal resources towards cultural promotion. But the
Chávez government established a distributor, Amazonia Films, as an
alternative to commercial networks.

Since opening in 2006, Amazonia has acquired films from Latin
America, Europe and Asia. Amazonia officials have also started to
provide support to independent film producers with cost reductions of
up to 35 percent. Instead of merely providing minor funding towards
incipient film production, the state has now created incentives so as
to increase film production and to enable moviemakers to acquire their
own equipment.

The new Minister of Culture, Francisco Sesto, began to encourage the
creation of audio-visual cooperatives. The idea was that filmmakers
would bring their proposals to the table and Villa del Cine would
decide if the government was interested in promoting the project. “It’s
all about the transformation of the state,” she says, “and how people
might become participants in the development of film through their own
art.” So far, Villa del Cine has shot on location in all twenty-four
Venezuelan states and in 2005-2006 the studio filmed 357 productions.

Almarza has overseen the production of TV series documenting
educational developments under Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution. But
Villa del Cine has also shot films about Indians and music, and in 2007
the studio planned to commence work on some fictional films. The
authorities also hope to spur the creation of a network of community
movie theaters. In 2006, 80 new theaters were created and authorities
seek to build yet more that could show films produced at Villa del
Cine.

Ultimately, Almarza and her staff hope that films made at Villa del
Cine will be shown at most any Venezuelan shopping mall along with the
usual Hollywood fare. Venezuela cannot compete economically with
Hollywood, but Villa del Cine seeks to provide alternatives to
globalized homogeneity. As Almarza explained to me, film serves as
useful tool in the “battle of ideas.”

Enter Danny Glover

As I sit with Almarza at Villa del Cine, I turn the discussion towards African-American actor Danny Glover, co-star of the Lethal Weapon and Dreamgirls
movies. A long-time civil rights activist and critic of the Bush
administration, the actor is chairman of the TransAfrica Forum, an
advocacy group for African Americans and other members of Africa's
diaspora.

The Hollywood celebrity, who considers Chávez “remarkable,” has been
a frequent visitor to Venezuela. In January 2004, TransAfrica Forum
sent a delegation of influential artists, actors, activists and
scholars to Caracas to meet with government officials. Glover, who
accompanied the delegation, expressed his excitement at the social
changes taking place in Venezuela. The actor remarked that the U.S.
media's portrayal of Venezuela had “nothing to do with reality."

Glover added that he was in Venezuela "to listen and learn, not only
from government and opposition politicians, but to share with the
people, those who are promoting the changes in this country and we want
to be in contact with those who benefit from those changes."

Glover and others later presided over the inauguration of a new
"Martin Luther King, Jr." school in the coastal town of Naiguata. The
area is home to large numbers of Afro-Venezuelans. The school
inauguration was the first official Venezuelan recognition of the
importance of the slain civil rights leader. What’s more, the
government launched a photo exposition to honor Dr. King.

Speaking at the event, Venezuelan Ambassador to the United States
Bernardo Álvarez declared, "The visit by members of the TransAfrica
Forum represents a struggle that goes beyond the figure of Martin
Luther King; his struggle, his ideas and the African-American social
movements inspired by him. This is a struggle aimed at defending
people's rights, not only in the United States, but in the hemisphere
and the world."

Glover, clearly touched by the occasion, commented, "This isn't
Danny Glover the artist. I'm here as a citizen, not only of the U.S.,
but a citizen of the world. We understand fully the importance of this
historical moment." Chávez later honored the late Dr. King during his
radio and TV show Aló, Presidente!. Glover and others were invited on air to participate.

Glover’s support for the Bolivarian Revolution continued into 2005.
In July of that year, the Hollywood entertainer returned to Venezuela,
this time accompanied by singer Harry Belafonte. Once in Caracas,
Glover attended the ceremonial launching of a new TV news station
called Telesur, a network that has received key financial support from
Cuba, Venezuela, Argentina and Uruguay.

Glover was impressed with the new media initiative but criticized
the station for not having any people of African or indigenous descent
on its advisory board. Chávez himself called in to the inauguration
shortly after and said to Glover, in English, "Danny, I am with you."

A few months later, Chávez traveled to New York to address the
United Nations. During his visit, the Venezuelan leader made an
appearance at the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew in Manhattan’s
Upper West Side where he praised U.S. icons such as Martin Luther King.
The forum for Chávez’s speech was called, “Social Forum on Poverty and
Justice in a Globalized World,” and was attended by Rev. Jesse Jackson
and Danny Glover.

Glover’s Venezuela Ties

Recently, other progressive Hollywood celebrities have paid visits
to Venezuela. Just last month, actor and writer Tim Robbins toured
Villa del Cine; the actor is reportedly contemplating the idea of
initiating some type of film project in Venezuela. Robbins, who is
known for his political activism and opposition to the Bush White
House, praised Chávez’s film installation for its support of novel film
directors. Robbins has been joined by Kevin Spacey and Sean Penn, two
other Hollywood stars who have paid recent visits to Villa del Cine.

Glover however has gone farther than the likes of Robbins, Spacey or
Penn in declaring his support for the political changes occuring in
Venezuela under Hugo Chávez. Indeed, the veteran civil rights activist
has even signed on to Telesur as a member of the TV station’s advisory
board.

In May 2007, Glover attended an International Communication
Conference in Caracas with noted journalists, media executives, and
intellectuals. The two-day event, which was open to the public, held
interesting roundtable debates. Some of the topics included were:
“Impunity and power of major media outlets,” “The responsibility of
national governments,” “The use of radio and TV airspace as a public
asset,” and “Social ownership of the media.”

Glover remarked that in the U.S., the issue of media control and
citizen participation in the media was off the table. “People (in the
United States) don't participate in a dialogue that allows them to see
that they have the power of information,” he said. “We see the
positions that the media take, and people should take that power back
and make themselves the architects of the media.”

At the end of the conference, participants agreed to promote the
creation of independent, community-based alternative media outlets as a
counterbalance against the corporate media. In a manifesto approved by
Telesur’s advisory council, participants declared that radio and
television were an “asset for humanity,” and should be administered by
national governments, not by corporations. Furthermore, national
governments should use their authority to revoke, concede, or renew
licenses in accordance with their various constitutions. The
participants applauded recent decisions taken by Argentina, Brazil, and
Uruguay to reclaim public air space.

The Myth of Toussaint

Glover’s relationship with the Chávez government goes deeper than
Telesur, however. During my interview with Almarza, the Villa del Cine
Director, she remarked, “We have a very fraternal relationship with
Glover. He came here to Villa del Cine in 2006. He’s interested in
developing some film productions.”

Since that interview, Glover’s ties to Villa del Cine have taken off. Chávez’s film studio has funded Glover’s new epic film, Toussaint,
about Francois Dominique Toussaint Louverture (1746-1803), one of the
fathers of Haiti's independence from France. The film represents
Glover’s directorial debut; the star will also co-produce the movie.

Together with Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Toussaint L'Ouverture was one
of the principal leaders of the Haitian rebellion at the end of the
eighteenth century that struggled against the revolutionary French as
well as Spanish, British, and Napoleonic forces. Toussaint liberated
black slaves not only in Haiti but all across the island of Hispaniola
(today, the island is divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic).

When Toussaint concluded a ceasefire with Napoleonic forces, which
were determined to reestablish colonial rule and reimpose slavery, the
Haitian revolutionary was betrayed, apprehended and deported. He died
in France in 1803. Toussaint’s lieutenant Dessalines, an ex-slave just
like Toussaint, continued the rebellion. Haiti finally declared its
independence from France in January 1804. The impoverished Caribbean
colony was the first black nation to throw off imperial rule and become
a republic.

Political Controversy Swirling Around Toussaint

Unfortunately, for Glover, controversy has recently swirled around Toussaint,
which will be filmed entirely in Venezuela (and not in Haiti, for
security reasons). Connie Mack, a U.S. Republican congressmember from
Florida, blasted Glover for cutting "a sweetheart movie deal" with
Chávez. Such complaints are practically pro forma for Mack,
who has been a vocal critic of Chávez’s Telesur. However, Mack has been
joined by various Venezuelan filmmakers, who have raised a number of
objections to the Glover film.

In 2007 the National Association of Film Makers and the Venezuelan
Chamber of Film Producers criticized Glover for using political
contacts to secure the funding package without a bidding process. The
filmmakers called such methods "demoralising and detrimental to future
generations of Venezuelan movie-makers." Claudia Nazoa, president of
the Venezuelan Chamber of Feature Film Producers (known by its Spanish
acronym Caveprol), said, "What worries us is this trend for
neo-colonisation by international figures who come to talk of their
support for Chávez's government—and leave with money for their
projects."

In 2007, Venezuela provided $18 million to fund Toussaint,
and this year the authorities kicked in an extra $9 million. Venezuelan
directors complain that the budget for Glover’s film matches the entire
state budget for domestic films from 2003 to 2008—a sum they say could
“finance 36 Venezuelan films.” Culture Minister Sesto called it "naive"
to think the movie industry would be out $18 million, since the money
did not come from Villa del Cine's operating funds but were part of an
"additional credit.” He added, "The funds earmarked for this movie will
be invested exclusively in Venezuela ... creating jobs and providing
excellent experience for our national film industry.”

Thaelman Urgelles, a Venezuelan director, remarked to Inter Press
Service that “we don’t have anything personal against Glover and it
even seems good to expand our relations with the movie industry, but
the quantity of money is excessive [and] it fails to consider the
efforts of Venezuelan moviemakers who can’t even get $450,000 to make a
film.” Urguelles added that normally filmmakers only obtained funding
after competing in competitive bids and sometimes had to dig into their
own pockets.

Even Diego Rísquez, the director of Villa del Cine’s Francisco de Miranda
(see below), has remarked that funding Glover’s film was “an error, a
lack of reflection, it puts all the eggs in one basket.” The director
added that Spanish, French and Italian directors had come to Venezuela
to film, and even Steven Spielberg had made part of Aracnophobia in the Andean nation. Unlike Glover however, those directors had brought international capital into Venezuela.

Iván Zambrano, President of Venezuela's National Association of
Cinematic Authors or ANAC, said he had questions about how government
money invested in Glover’s film would be spent. "They say that the
artists will be 30 per cent Venezuelan and 70 per cent foreign," he
said.
"We want to know how this co-production will work and whether [the
money that the government is investing] will include paying the
artists. If you have Hollywood actors charging Hollywood salaries, then
the budget will go on just two or three actors."

Chávez has said that he would like to break Hollywood’s tight
stranglehold over the film industry by creating Villa del Cine. Yet
ironically, though the film shall include African and Haitian actors,
high profile Hollywood stars have also been billed for Toussaint. The
film will star Don Cheadle, Angela Bassett, and Wesley Snipes.

"In a country with rampant poverty, a catastrophic health crisis and
14,000 violent deaths a year, President Hugo Chávez gives away our
money for his friends to play with," said L.A.-based Venezuelan
director Jonathan Jakubowicz. The Venezuelan filmmaker’s 2005 kidnap
drama Secuestro Express was a local hit but also angered Chávez's government for its hard-hitting portrayal of sociopolitical malaise in Venezuela.

Villa del Cine Defends the Project

Representatives of the government wasted no time in hitting back at
the Venezuelan filmmakers. Sesto declared that the Ministry of Culture
would no longer recognize Caveprol and ANAC. According to Sesto, the
filmmakers at these organizations were not “legitimate representatives
of universal cinematography. They represent themselves; they are small
groups with a monetary vision.” Sesto added that by funding Toussaint, Venezuela had the opportunity of joining the “major leagues” of cinema.

Some Venezuelan filmmakers complain that Villa del Cine will only
produce films that fall in line with Chávez's socialist ideals, an
accusation which Glover denies. The veteran actor has remarked that Toussaint
won’t be left-wing revisionism but rather a critical movie dealing with
a part of the hemisphere's past that has been "essentially wiped out of
our historic memory."

Villa del Cine adminstrators claim that political pressure doesn’t
figure into their decisions. "We are looking to make good films, no
matter what the script. We really want writers and directors to come to
us with their ideas. If they're good, we'll support them," Villa del
Cine executive director Marco Mondarain told the BBC.

During my interview with Almarza from Villa del Cine, she said that
Chávez had never intervened in the studio’s affairs. Almarza had never
spoken personally to the Venezuelan president, though she and her
colleagues at the Ministry of Culture had met with Chávez as a group.
In 2007, says Oscar Murat, a project co-ordinator at La Villa del Cine,
the studio “received various different proposals and of the ones which
won commissions, none was linked with politics.”

Chávez, Miranda and Haiti

Despite the denials, it’s clear that a movie dealing with Caribbean
slave revolt dovetails with Chávez’s frankly anti-imperialist political
outlook. "This film [Toussaint] will form part of our
ideological canon against Metro Goldwyn Mayer [MGM]," said Venezuelan
congressman Simón Escalona. Outside of Venezuela, high-profile figures
are pleased with Glover’s project. Haitian President René Preval told
the New York Daily News that “we had the first successful
anti-slave rebellion in this hemisphere. It’s our contribution to
humanity. If Glover can take this story to the big screen, we will be
happy.”

For Chávez, the Haitian independence struggle has key symbolic
meaning. In March 2007, the Venezuelan leader traveled to the Caribbean
island nation. Chávez timed his arrival in Haiti for maximum political
and historic effect. “We know that March 12, 1806 [two years after
Haiti became a republic] exactly two centuries ago and a year … a very
great Venezuelan cried out for independence,” he said. “And it is here
in a revolutionary boat with a revolutionary crew that the Venezuelan
flag was hoisted for the first time. Francisco de Miranda, as you know,
was that great Venezuela, and the reason for our visit is linked to
what he did way back then."

Francisco de Miranda (1750-1816), considered by some to be a
forerunner of later South American independence figures such as Simón
Bolívar (1783-1830), was a soldier who fought in the American and
French revolutions. In addition, he played a key part in events leading
to Venezuela’s declaration of independence from Spain in 1811. The
revolutionary was captured by Spanish colonial forces and spent the
last days of his life as a prisoner. He died in a military fortress in
Cádiz.

Within the National Pantheon of Caracas, where Bolívar lies in
state, there’s an empty tomb awaiting Miranda’s body. A group of
Spanish scientists has tried to determine whether certain remains in
the fortress indeed belong to Miranda. The scientists have extracted
DNA from bones in the fortress and will compare the genetic material to
Miranda’s descendants in order to reach a final determination.

Not surprisingly, Chávez has expressed personal interest in the
investigation. Though obscure, Miranda is one of Chávez’s favorite
historical personalities. In the run-up to the December 2006
presidential election Chávez hailed his followers, nicknamed Miranda’s
electoral “battalions.”

In 2006, Villa del Cine celebrated the two hundredth anniversary of
Miranda’s return voyage to Venezuela by producing a film about the
exploits of the late eighteenth-century hero. The film, Francisco de Miranda,
glorifies the struggle of the intrepid revolutionary and draws
attention to his dream of a united South America. After opening in 35
of Venezuela’s 400 movie theaters, the film did quite well at the box
office and surpassed Hollywood blockbuster Superman Returns during the summer 2006 season.

Historical Symbolism of Venezuelan-Haitian Solidarity

Chávez has long emphasized historical symbolism in his political
rhetoric, and his speech in Haiti proved no exception. Addressing the
Haitian public in 2007, the Venezuelan leader remarked, “We are very
conscious of what the Haitian people are—a people who were able to
defeat empires and free their country well before the rest of Latin
America and the Caribbean—a heroic people and also a ravaged people
over the past two centuries. You must also know that Bolívar passed
through here … in 1816 when in Venezuela … all appeared lost in the
battle against Spain.”

The Venezuelan leader went on to discuss the important political
connections between the Haitian Revolution and the Venezuelan
independence struggle. Bolívar arrived in Haiti on Christmas Eve, 1815
after being expelled from Venezuela. Fortunately Haitian President
Alexandre Pétion (1770-1818) welcomed Bolívar and his freedom fighters
and provided them with shelter, guns, ammunition and a printing press.

Four months later, as he was about to depart from Haiti en route
to Venezuela, Bolívar asked his benefactor how he might repay Haiti's
generosity. Pétion replied that the best thanks Haiti could receive
would be the liberation of all slaves residing in the Spanish colonies.
Bolívar later honored his debt to Pétion by freeing the 1,500 slaves
his family owned in Caracas. He also printed a proclamation, on
Pétion's very own printing press, abolishing slavery in Venezuela. The
proclamation, however, only applied to black slaves who enlisted in
Bolívar’s army. It wasn’t until 1854 that slavery was finally abolished
in the country.

“All of this [history] has to do with why I am here today,” Chávez
said while addressing the Haitian people. “Today I feel I am paying
part of our historic debt to Haiti. And I say this, after more than 8
years in government, this is the first time I visit Haiti. I should
have come here earlier.” Chávez’s choice of words couldn’t have been
more symbolic: to this day, Venezuelan children are taught in school
that their country owes a “historic debt” to Haiti for helping Bolívar.

Bolívar’s Political Significance

It’s no accident that Chávez would go out of his way to bring up
Bolívar while visiting Haiti. In Venezuela, it is almost mandatory for
political leaders to make historic allusions to Bolívar, the “Great
Liberator” against Spanish rule. Bolívar, Chávez has said, was a
socialist like himself, was stridently opposed to the United States,
and was also determined to build a classless society. What’s more, the
Venezuelan leader has argued, Bolívar’s dream of uniting Latin America
represented a threat to oligarchs and imperialists, thus awakening the
ire of the United States.

Chávez has no doubt taken some historical liberties and embellished
his causal intellectual ties to Bolívar. The Liberator never talked
about class struggle per se, though he did pursue progressive
social legislation by issuing decrees for the establishment of schools
for boys as well as girls. Bolívar also deplored the misery of
indigenous peoples and ordered the conservation of forest resources.

But Bolívar was perhaps most forward looking when he spoke of the
necessity of integrating Latin America. It was Bolívar, early on, who
understood that the region had no future unless it confronted both
Europe and the United States as a unified bloc. The United States,
Bolívar once famously declared, seemed “destined by providence to
plague America with misery on behalf of freedom.”

Chávez has said that he will not rest until Venezuela is liberated
from the “imperialist and anti-Boliviaran threat.” He frequently draws
comparisons between Bolívar’s struggle against the Spanish Empire and
his own political confrontation with the United States, which Chávez
habitually refers to as “The Empire.”

In Venezuela, Bolívar is revered as a God-like figure and his
popularity continues to soar. Indeed, a popular religion based on the
fertility goddess of María Lionza has appropriated Bolívar as one of
its central ritual figures. The faith is based on indigenous, black,
African, and Catholic roots, and priests hold ceremonies in which the
spirit of the Liberator is channeled through a medium who coughs when
Bolívar is present since Venezuela’s most distinguished native son had
a debilitating case of tuberculosis. Meanwhile, religious altars of the
faithful generally feature a portrait of Bolívar.

In addition, Venezuela’s currency, main squares, and universities
bear the Liberator’s name. His sayings are taught in schools, broadcast
on the radio and emblazoned on government buildings. Chávez almost
reverentially has referred to his political movement as a “Bolivarian
Revolution.” Chávez has renamed his country the Bolivarian Republic of
Venezuela and has reportedly left a chair empty at meetings to honor
the Liberator. Chávez supporters, or chavistas, have dubbed
the areas they politically control as “liberated zones of the
Bolivarian Republic” and adorn offices and homes with portraits of the
Liberator. Chávez has promoted so-called Bolivarian Circles, local
grassroots groups at the local or barrio level, which lobby the
government for important grassroots resources.

Furthermore, Chávez champions Bolívar’s idea of a unified South
America and echoes the Liberator’s words during his televised speeches.
Chávez also likes to appear on television with a portrait of Bolívar
near at hand. Riding along Caracas highways, one may see repeated
instances of murals juxtaposing portraits of Chávez and Bolívar. In
Caracas, a key historic landmark is Bolívar’s native house. Located
along downtown streets crowded with informal vendors, the house is
often full of visiting school children.

Taking his picturesque concept of history to yet greater political
heights, Chávez is now intent on proving that Bolívar was poisoned by
corrupt oligarchs and did not succumb to tuberculosis. The Venezuelan
leader asserts that in Bolívar’s day, tuberculosis was not lethal
enough to cause death in a few scant weeks. As evidence to support his
claim, Chávez points to one of Bolívar’s letters in which the Liberator
discusses his future plans. Bolívar wrote the letter shortly before his
own death in the coastal Colombian town of Santa Marta.

“Some say he [Bolívar] was very ill and knew he was going to die,
and he wanted to die by the side of the sea and he died happy, and
Colombia was happy and Venezuela was happy,” Chávez said in a long
speech. “How the oligarchs fooled us, the ones here, the ones there.
How the historians who falsified history fooled us.”

The Venezuelan leader recently convened a high commission, led by
his Vice President and composed of nine cabinet ministers and the
Attorney General. Their mission: exhume Bolívar’s remains, which lie in
a sarcophagus at the National Pantheon in downtown Caracas, and conduct
scientific tests to confirm Chávez’s contention—that diabolical
assassins murdered Bolívar. “This commission has been created because
the executive considers it to be of great historical and cultural value
to clarify important doubts regarding the death of the Liberator,”
Venezuela’s Official Gazette said.

But even Chávez’s most stalwart supporters say their leader may have
gone too far this time. “This doesn’t make any sense,” said Alberto
Mueller Rojas, a retired general who works as a presidential adviser on
international affairs and military matters. “Why should I care? Bolívar
died. If they killed him, they killed him. If he died of tuberculosis,
he died of tuberculosis. In this day and age, this doesn’t have any
significance.”

Perhaps not surprisingly given the political importance that Chávez
has attached to Bolívar, Villa del Cine is reportedly planning to
produce a film about the Great Liberator. The movie will be adapted
from the Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez's historical novel
about Bolívar entitled The General in His Labyrinth.

The book, which was originally released in 1989, tells the story of
the last days of the Great Liberator as he departs the Colombian city
of Bogotá for Santa Marta on the coast. Venezuelan authorities have
paid out a handsome $2 million for the rights to the Márquez book,
which is reportedly Hugo Chávez’s favorite novel. Almarza, as director
of Villa del Cine, is clearly enthusiastic about taking on the project.
“Bolívar is a world figure and belongs to all Venezuela,” she remarked.

In addition to The General in His Labryinth, Villa del Cine has also produced Libertador Morales. The film centers on a Simón Bolívar-quoting motorcycle-taxi driver seeking social justice.

Honoring Venezuela’s “Historic Debt’ to Haiti

Chávez’s recent trip to Haiti and his emphasis on vital historic
symbols is taking place against a volatile political backdrop. In 2004,
observers say that Haiti’s democratically elected President Jean
Bertrand Aristide was kidnapped with the connivance of Washington. When
a new government took power in Port-au-Prince under Gérard Latortue,
Chávez snubbed the Bush administration by refusing to recognize the
regime, which the United States, Canada, France and the European Union
all recognized as the new government.

In Venezuela, Chávez decried the participation of Latin American
troops in the United Nations’ “stabilization mission” sent to Haiti and
even offered refuge in Venezuela to exiled President Aristide. The
former Haitian President, who blames the U.S. government for his
downfall, likens his own story to that of Toussaint who was betrayed
and brought to France. Aristide currently resides in South Africa.

In 2006 Haiti elected René Préval, who had served as Prime Minister
in Aristide’s first administration and as President from 1996 to 2001.
Though Préval hinted that Aristide might return to Haiti, he has not
provided a time frame for the exiled leader to come back. Speaking in
South Africa Aristide criticized the 2006 election, calling it a
"selection" in which "the knife of treason was planted" in the back of
the Haitian people.

Some Haitians hope that Chávez might help to ease the way for
Aristide to return some day. When the Venezuelan leader visited Haiti
in 2007, cries of “Chávez” could be heard throughout the streets of the
capital. At the Port-au-Prince airport, Haitians arrived minute after
minute and chanted "Chávez, Chávez, it is you whom we seek ...
President Préval needs your help to return Aristide." Meanwhile, the
demonstrators denounced UN peacekeepers for using overwhelming military
force to suppress violent gangs.

In an effort to strengthen the historic bond between Haiti and
Venezuela, Chávez has created a $20 million fund for Haiti to provide
humanitarian aid and to develop joint cooperation projects. The money
will pay for health care, education, housing and other basic
necessities sorely lacking in the Caribbean nation of 8 million. Haiti
will also benefit from Chávez's Petrocaribe initiative, which provides
petroleum products and other aid to needy Caribbean countries to help
them counter rising energy prices. Recipients are offered deferred
payment and long-term financing for fuel shipments.

Never one to neglect rich historic symbolism, Chávez remarked during
his visit that it was time to encourage the “union of our republics. It
is an old project of Miranda's and Bolívar's … of Pétion's and of
Louverture's—all those who dreamed of a great nation, of a free
nation…The President of the United States is the representative of the
cruelest empire,” Chávez added, “the most cynical, criminal and
murderous which has ever existed. He represents the project of colonial
domination. Whereas we, I say this humbly but with dignity, represent
the Bolivarian project to liberate our nations.”

Following their historic meeting, Chávez and Préval commemorated the
occasion by placing flowers at Port-au-Prince's monuments to Pétion and
Bolívar.

Nikolas Kozloff, a NACLA senior research associate, is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008).