‘Venezuela Undercover’. What the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent left behind

Campbell and Davis render chavismo banal, reducing it to the recklessness of Chavez’s charisma and people’s adoration of a now dead leader. 

By Carlos Morreo

Foreign Correspondent disappoints with ‘Venezuela Undercover’. A good-looking but trivial piece of ‘investigative journalism’. The 30-minute documentary by reporter Eric Campbell and producer Mike Davis, begins by asserting that Venezuela is, today, a ‘disaster’. Though very little in the documentary is offered that might allow the viewer to understand why ‘Venezuela is a disaster’. The imagery of Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, looks colourful and striking on screen, but the material accompanies a formulaic narration. Caracas is either manic and dangerous or a stagnant and politically depressed city. The assumption that Campbell or Davis are capable of reporting on Venezuela is naïve. That they should report on Venezuela is arrogant. Beyond Campbell’s statements on ‘populism’, ‘socialism’ and ‘oil wealth’, very little is said beyond a reference to the collapse in oil prices in recent years and the government having nationalised private companies.

What the documentary does do very well is fulfil the tropes of how one should report on a ‘socialist state’. We are either told or made to think that foreign journalists are banned, that the Venezuelan government doesn’t want what is happening in the country to be known, and that little news gets out. Venezuela as some kind of tropical and disorderly North Korea. Campbell’s closing lines speaks of ‘leaving behind’ 32 million Venezuelans. Presumably, all people he would save if he could. But the fact is that journalism on Venezuela abounds, and all manner of writings, footage and reports on the country can be found.

There is barely any examination of how today’s Venezuela has come about. Campbell and David interview sociologist Margarita López Maya, though the grabs are underwhelming. I wish Campbell and David would contextualise a little. Lopez Maya, a well-regarded Venezuelan academic, accompanied chavismo up until 2009 or thereabouts. Many others have supported chavismo throughout its various phases. The ‘Bolivarian revolution’, Hugo Chavez in the presidency, related social movements and chavismo itself, have all had various chapters since 1998. Margarita Lopez Maya, but also Edgardo Lander, to mention another well-known Venezuelan sociologist, have both analysed, questioned or supported chavismo in its different periods. Today, both have distanced themselves from Maduro’s government, but others remain. Nevertheless, Campbell and Eric’s postcard from Venezuela chooses to present a rather trite analysis from López Maya in which she warns Australian viewers of Trump’s populism, ‘because Chavez in 1998 is like Trump today’.

Several opposition politicians are referred to on screen and María Corina Machado is given some weight. For a presidential candidate who ran against Chavez in 2012 by promoting ‘popular capitalism’, it might be surprising to hear her speak of ‘solidarity’. Though here coupled with talk of ‘innovation, prosperity and freedom’. This was the only occasion in which talk of solidarity was presented throughout the documentary. Once, and by a pro-market politician. That this was so, should have led Campbell and Davis to seek other voices and to ask better questions.

Still, what is truly striking is that there are no government voices. The assumption here is that given the undercover nature of the filming, no government representatives could be approached. Are we supposed to absolve Australian journalists when overseas in ‘troubled spots’ from the basics of journalism? The documentary could have presented any number of voices from supporters or leftist analysts speaking about Venezuela’s current situation. The well-known and very vocal members of Marea Socialista, a faction recently expelled from the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), come to mind.

Despite the lack of analysis chavismo is, nevertheless, brought into the documentary in a significant way. As a series of threats experienced by Campbell and Eric themselves,if the government finds out…if we are kidnapped by this gang… and by Venezuelans who are ‘watched over’ by Chavez’s ghost. Chavismo is also emptied of any reason in the documentary through its discursive absence. At some moment, we are told that Hugo Chavez, four years after his death, still counts with a strong following, and that the government itself has loyal supporters. And yet no socialists, no Venezuelan left, no articulate analysts detailing the difficulties of the Venezuelan ‘petro-state’ or governing from the left in Latin America are brought into the frame. In its place, we see Campbell visiting malandros in a Caracas slum (no need for the Trump coinage ‘bad hombres’).Chavismo is a threat, a ghostly presence or simply nonsensical.

The documentary trivialises what has been a significant experience in Venezuela, for its people, and the left. There are no interviews with members of the government-backed ‘community councils’, the vast popular and community run media or from the numerous social movements. These organisations and forms of political engagement, reinvigorated by chavismo since the early 2000s, and often engaged in complex negotiations with state power, are simply erased from Venezuelan reality.

I, for one, would have been interested in seeing an ABC-funded piece of journalism following the various state-backed food distribution networks, at the heart of the current food shortages while also a measure to address the crisis. But Campbell and Davis render chavismo banal, reducing it to the recklessness of Chavez’s charisma and people’s adoration of a now dead leader.

* ‘Venezuela Undercover‘ can be seen through here.

Carlos Eduardo Morreo is a Venezuelan citizen and Australian permanent resident, and a researcher at the ANU’s School of Politics and International Relations in Canberra. Between 2008 and 2009 he worked in the Venezuelan government’s Ministry of Popular Power for the Environment. @carlosmorreo

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