Somewhere between Barack Obama’s plan for direct YouTube communiqués to the people (“firewall” chats, you could call them) and Britain’s Question Time tradition of exposing the prime minister to scheduled, public, vigorous criticism from Parliament lies the strange, virtual spectacle that is Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez’s live weekly television program, Alo Presidente, or Hello, President. Like an infomercial for autocracy — the assembled audience’s clapping is frequent and expertly timed to the emcee’s grandstanding, and requires no “Applause” sign — it’s the media-shrewd Chavez’s regular on-camera forum for, well, whatever he wants. Policy explanations, cheerleading, shout-outs to Fidel Castro, denunciations of American imperialism, jokes, songs, walking tours, questions from the people, questions to his cabinet — it often goes on for five to eight hours.
It also makes for a fascinating clip-job through-line to Frontline producer Ofra Bikel’s gripping report The Hugo Chavez Show, airing Tuesday, because it acts as the interview she never got with the red-shirted, Weeble-shaped charmer, in examining the effect of his 10-year stewardship of an oil-rich but poverty-stricken nation. Through many interviews with associates, ex-officials and every-day Venezuelans, Bikel finds socialist programs that were started with much fanfare but abandoned soon after, soaring crime rates, supporters tarred as enemies when they criticize, and an increasingly restive populace, who last year managed to vote down sweeping constitutional changes Chavez wanted, which would have given him the presidency for life. But Bikel’s quiet theme is how dangerous it is to underestimate a PR-savvy would-be dictator after an unexpected defeat for one of his political initiatives. A cartoonishly egocentric, hours-long weekly variety pulpit is one thing, but as Bikel chillingly shows by program’s end, Chavez also knows the power of two words writ large. “For now ...” his postelection billboard campaign informed the Venezuelan people. To use a show-biz expression, that certainly doesn’t sound like a sign off.