Revolution in Ruins: The Hugo Chávez Story review – essential, chilling viewing

In an era of populism, this documentary about the president-cum-TV superstar Chávez feels appallingly familiar

Six years after his death, we get Revolution in Ruins: The Hugo Chávez Story (BBC Two), a dense and deeply depressing precis of his 14-year rule of Venezuela: a country with the largest proven oil reserves on the planet where 90% of the population live in poverty. Why this, now? Probably because of the rise in populism and the cult of personality in politics, which collide with such magnetic force in the polarising figure of Chávez.

Of course there’s a world of difference between the populism of the left and the right, which is what we’re seeing in Brazil, Hungary, the US and the endless chaos of Brexit. What’s so appalling is the outcome is often the same: the slippery slope to authoritarianism, corruption and abject poverty. Venezuela is now a country in freefall. Inflation is said to be more than 1,000,000%. People are starving to death. Childhood friend Rafael Simon Jimenez says of the president’s death from cancer at the age of 58, “[it] spared him from dealing with the disaster that began under his rule”.

But I’m fast-forwarding to the end. This balanced explainer begins with the longstanding inequities in a country of 30 million people, many of whom have never benefited from Venezuela’s unparalleled oil reserves. Chávez was one of them: the son of teachers raised in the impoverished southwestern plains. His childhood nickname was Goofy on account of being skinny with big feet. (Those who later tuned into the president’s singing and dancing TV show, described by a former adviser as “a variety show happening all day, every day”, might have assumed it was for different reasons.) He joined the military and by 1992 was leading a coup to overthrow the government.

This is when the nation first encountered the fresh-faced army officer in a red beret and fatigues on TV, a medium embraced so evangelically by Chávez one can’t help but think of another media-obsessed leader who sprang from the small screen and is increasingly called a dictator. Before going to prison, Chávez asked to address the country live on TV. “We have not met our objectives … for now,” he announced. It was those last two bristling words – “por ahora” in Venezuelan Spanish – that seized the imagination of an entire country. In that moment Chávez, the charismatic comandante, socialist revolutionary and media superstar, was born.

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