Chávez y el nuevo arte del melodrama / Israel Centeno

Chávez and the New Art of Melodrama

The president’s cancer is the theme of the latest chapter of the great Bolivarian soap opera where nothing’s missing: the trip to Cuba; truth and lies; chemotherapy and the caudillo’s epic battle against illness

Norberto Ceressole, probably the first media consultant and scriptwriter for the Bolivarian Revolution, profiled the media format of a neofascist venture. Once the media had been assaulted an intimate relationship would be established from the realms of power between Hugo Chávez and others through screens, newspaper headlines and the then-incipient Internet; the emotional tie between caudillo, Armed Forces and the people would be created. The lieutenant colonel, star of two bloody military disturbances and a successful electoral process, would assume the direction and acting of an epic telenovela.

The episodes have been innumerable. In just a decade 1,995 obligatory TV and radio broadcasts have been transmitted. The Venezuelan revolution didn’t have a triumphal entry into Caracas nor did it assault the Romanov’s Winter Palace. From the start the populist exploit was expressed live and direct in an open studio and set up for the broadcast of an eternal spectacle; scene after scene. The Pretty Revolution wins ratings and livens the melodramatic dialectic between individuals, political parties, religious believers, media owners, business executives, heads of State, housewives, military personnel, Hollywood actors and directors –Sean Penn, Oliver Stone, Danny Glover, etcetera–, and with that entelechy named the people. There’s room for everyone in what’s beginning to be called the great Bolivarian soap opera.

We could highlight some of its famous chapters: The Constituent. The Treacherous Brothers. The Coup. The Return. The Strike. You’re Fired. Military Officers in the Plaza. Fidel and the Sea of Happiness. Referendum. Fraud? Bonanza. Iran and me. It Smells Like Sulfur Here. Plebiscite.

The most recent frame is titled Cancer.

Exterior daytime: the president leaves to go on tour, he waves goodbye at the door to his plane, shakes his immense humanity before the cameras. Second frame: trip through South America. Third frame: short layover in Havana to say hello to Fidel.

Meanwhile, far from the cameras: Venezuela is immersed in a disproportionate electricity crisis, shortages. Violent crimes and prison riots.

Plot in Havana: the brief visit of a few hours turns into the disappearance of the hero. The ministers go to Havana and return to Caracas, they don’t conceal a bias of worry, someone lets the word illness escape. The Minister of Information denies the rumor in the social media: “Chávez is healthy as a horse.” This affirmation is enough for the news-centered murmur about his health to respond chaotically. Some representatives from the Government party admit it, others deny it.

The first truth: Fidel gives part of it; the president commander has had an emergency operation for a pelvic abscess. Opportunely, the word cancer is filtered out of nowhere and it bubbles through all the cracks of the national show. The atmosphere resembles a trading floor. Each person has his own diagnosis: prostrate, intestine; metastasis.

Opening of dramatic comment: official denial. The president is healthy. A medical report is demanded amidst a reactive stampede. The official realm maintains ambiguity, but lets us see a dispute for the succession. Adán, the president’s brother, calls for a fight that will transcend the electoral field; the opposition points to a vacuum of power and demands respect for the Constitution; the country founders as if nothing were happening, scarcity, insecurity, the everyday as a backdrop.

Second truth and prognosis: Fidel appears on the scene once again and sentences: Hugo Chávez has cancer and he will beat it. The exaltation is generalized, no one wants to refrain from commenting, all the media platforms are activated. The enthusiasts say that for the first time in many years the country dares to think of a reality without Chávez. The pollsters sustain that the president’s media absence will damage him irreversibly. (Aside: Venezuela burns.)

Third truth: Hugo Chávez appears. Little is left of the corpulent and enthusiastic commander. He’s lost some pounds and is gaunt. He’s wearing a tracksuit like his mentor; he admits he’s waging a battle against a terrible illness. The man who shouted Socialism or Death!, despite his circumstances points out that the slogan is life. I Will Live, We Will Live! (Unanimous compassion.)

After a brief period of uncertainty, of ups and downs in rumors, the compassionate unanimity is broken and Venezuela accuses unease regarding the sensation that Havana is the new seat of power. Fidel surprises and declares: Chávez is going to surprise Venezuelans. President Chávez arrives at Simón Bolívar Airport at dawn, he’s greeted there by a multitude of cameras and microphones, he goes to the Balcony of the People at the presidential palace where he is televised in front of the multitudes and tells his truth. In his narrative he’ll make each crucial moment of his battle for life coincide with the events of the Bicentennial of Independence, he’ll superimpose an individual system of symbols over the key points of the emancipation.

Thinner but energetic, he tells how on June 24th, day of the Battle of Carabobo, he’ll wage the battle for his life in the operation room; on July 5th, day of the signing of the declaration of independence, he manifests his need to live in power until 2031, because the revolution has barely begun. He replaces slogans and questions the color red as the only symbol of his revolution. The three phases of his recovery process coincide with the phases of the consolidation of the liberation process he leads. Like Bolívar in Pativilca he has decided to rise and conquer. The multitude shouts: Rest, President! The ministers cry, the celebration of the bicentennial of Independence begins, but the emancipation disappears as a central figure of the spectacle. The cameras focus on registering the epic military processions, the nationalist holocausts, the recreations of great moments of the homeland around the figure of a Bolívar reincarnated in the struggles of commander Hugo Chávez against his illness.

He returns to Havana to receive a dose of chemotherapy. Heroes and villains check their numbers. Upon returning he declares that Fidel told him: “Boy, you don’t have anything anymore, you’re gonna live.” (Ovation.) “I was scanned by a spectacular apparatus and not a single malignant cell was found.” (More ovations.) From that moment he takes to the media again (did he ever abandon it?). On an obligatory TV and radio broadcast of all national media he will perform his exercises, take his pills in the middle of pious litanies, display his fighting spirit attacking the unity of the opposition: he challenges imperialism, promotes the fight against sectarianism, tends bridges toward the middle class and fractures the logic of his adulators: “They’ve forced me to wear red and that’s suspicious.” The audience receives news, he’s “getting rid” of his hair. Two sequences later, he appears with his head shaved and shows off his new look for the empire.

Cancer becomes a terrible telenovela with universally high ratings.

A revolution that needs an epic reveals the difficulties of its caudillo. His fight against the oligarchy, coups, colic, the empire and now the olympic struggle against a terminal illness. The sick art of governance. The leader confuses the social I with his own self, he becomes the creator of reality. He breaks reason, breaks the pacts of verisimilitude without any consequence in his acceptance. Truth ceases to matter and what is of interest is what occurs around a suspended truth, a truth that will never be known, an indefinable, postponed truth. Hugo Chávez has added techniques to the manipulation and integration of messages: the caudillo rides the new communication platforms, fractures his audience’s frontal lobe and injects emotional suspense into the limbic zones of the collective brain.

Many chapters of the TV soap opera have yet to be lived. New sessions of chemotherapy and afternoons in Havana beside Fidel are to come; both of them will consider the staging of a glorious agony, they’ll comment on Nietzsche and caress the idea of Zarathustra’s rebirth. Before Hugo, truth was the first victim of absolute power, now he has shifted the paradigm, the end of the melodrama will no longer be the revelation of a truth but rather the acceptance of a lie. The truth will sit beneath the surface like a detail as long as there’s a scriptwriter and actor to trivialize and disperse it in thousands of farces.

Israel Centeno is a Venezuelan writer.

{ Israel Centeno, El País, 15 August 2011 }

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