Venezuela from Afar: A Brief History So Far

A few decades ago we were the rich, politically stable, democratic kids on the block in our neighborhood. Tables have turned and Venezuela is perceived, and portrayed, painfully accurately all over the media.

Photo: El Universo

When I was a kid, people would make fun of Cuba, a poor, hungry, backwards dictatorship led by a cigar-chomping, uniform-clad megalomaniac. The joke I remember the most was Radio Rochela’s take on the Elián González controversy, with little Elián carrying a big bag full of toilet paper for all his relatives in the island. Funny, right?

Now the joke’s on us, and we don’t laugh that much. For a bit of perspective, this has been Venezuela from afar:

Venezuela B.C. (Before Chávez)

Once upon a time, there were cartels in Colombia, guerrillas in Central America, right-wing dictatorships across the continent, Fidel in Cuba… and boring Venezuela. From a quick glimpse through news segments abroad, you’d swear that between Betancourt fighting guerrillas and the Caracazo, nothing happened here.

In entertainment, though, is where you find our idiosyncrasy. Portrayals of Venezuela I could find from the time were incidental, focused on oil or the Amazon jungle. Arachnophobia, for example, had Venevisión maniacally reminding us that the movie’s first couple of minutes were shot at Canaima National Park.

But there are also very telling nuggets that give you an idea about how Venezuelans were seen, the earliest from a 1970s sitcom called ¿Qué pasa U.S.A?, about the Cuban-American Peña family adapting to life in the United States.

In this 1977 episode, the family gets a visit from Milagros, a wealthy cousin from Caracas who tries to keep up her lavish lifestyle despite the Peña’s modest income. At the end, it’s revealed that despite her talk of Gucci, Givenchy and Christian Dior, cousin Milagros is flat broke and living off distant relatives abroad.

In the 90s, Colombian animated show El Siguiente Programa, their answer to Beavis & Butthead, had the poor, hungry-stricken soldiers of Chibchombia cross to wealthy, bountiful Chamozuela, pissing off the Chamozuelan foreign minister, Burelli (portrayed with donkey ears), causing a full-scale war and the main characters were then drafted to fight for Chibchombia.

The Venezuelans were portrayed as the better-equipped and more efficient of the two armies, all rife with historical irony. The only thing more bizarre than Colombians doing Venezuelan accents? The Venezuelan army commanded by Irene Sáez!

The past, friends, is a foreign country.

The Comedy

On September 20, 2006, Hugo Chávez said it smelled of brimstone at the UN General Assembly, referencing Mr. Danger,  and caught the attention of many. Opposing an increasingly unpopular president wasn’t just a PR opportunity, it fitted perfectly with chavismo’s self-aggrandizing mythology recycled from the Cold War: North Vs. South, Right Vs. Left, Mister Danger Vs. Tribilín.

Soon, intellectuals and celebrities approached to see what that “21st Century Socialism” was about.  Oliver Stone, Sean Penn, Naomi Campbell, and Danny Glover were some of the stars who took their picture with Hugo, even if some came to regret it later.

Though popular in certain circles (particularly among academia and left-wing movements), many in the mainstream U.S. media were reluctant to back Chávez (or at least smart enough to play safe). Such was the case with Jon Stewart of The Daily Show —who felt someone could make Chávez’ points without  “being batshit insane“—, and SNL equating him to Hussein and Kim Jong II.

Shows ranging from Parks and Recreation to The Good Wife, and movies like We Bought A Zoo maintained this vague image of a tropical Gaddafi. For them, Chávez was an outrageous, over-the-top autocrat, more amusing than menacing. Portrayals about Chávez in Latin America were far better informed; from Mexico to Uruguay, they managed to tap the petrodollar-fueled zeitgeist, while having fun with its oddest elements.

Though why México thinks we’re obsessed with Ricardo Montaner eludes me.

The strangest bit comes from Black Lagoon, a 2006 manga about a group of world-travelling mercenaries. One story arc revolves around an influential landowner assassinated by U.S. agents for being chavista, and his revenge-seeking maid, who happens to be a former FARC assassin trained in Cuba, “inheriting the title of Jackal from Carlos himself.”

The Tragedy

In March 5, 2013, Hugo Chávez passed away. That very weekend, SNL had Justin Timberlake playing Elton John at “Chávez’ funeral,” Lady Di style.

Although portrayals on the darker side of Chavismo weren’t unknown, without El Comandante and his charisma, attention shifted from the man to the country. With the Venezuelan government losing influence and apologists, the results of its policies became clearer and straightforward critiques appeared. Ten years ago, a show like El Comandante would have been unthinkable!

Without El Comandante and his charisma, attention shifted from the man to the country.

Consider Baracas, a recurring South American dictatorship in CSI: Miami, with an elite that dwells in drug traffic and trendy nightclubs, with this flag in 2003. We were, along Russia and China, one of the countries not willing to cooperate with the Americans in Arrival; in House of Cards, their Snowden equivalent hid in Puerto La Cruz while the mobsters in True Detective preferred Barquisimeto. And there’s this hit song in Lithuania.

A more realistic recent portrayal is in the Dynasty reboot; focused on an oil-rich family, it was inevitable that sooner or later they’d mention us. There’s talk about drug traffic, criminal gangs and, probably for the first time in U.S. media, they mention bolichicos by name.

For me, the worst offender is True Memories of an International Assassin, a Kevin James vehicle released by Netflix in 2016.

An American movie about an assassin sent to kill the president of Venezuela may seem as a gift for Aporrea, but it’s not even good for that. The movie’s Venezuela, with a flat, coastal Caracas, a “pro-democratic guerilla,” at least three decades of military governments and a dictator supervised by the CIA, has a  connection to real Venezuela so strenuous, with so much caution on taking sides, that it’s insulting.

Easy. Brand recognition.

And that’s the tragedy here. As Chávez —who is nowhere to be found in the movie— fades from global consciousness, we still have to live with how he shaped Venezuela and us, including how we’re seen.

It’ll be a long, painful road for rehabilitation, but if Cuba sort of could with that government they have, imagine Venezuela with a new one.

José González Vargas

Freelance journalist, speculative fiction writer, college professor, political junkie, lover of books and movies and, semi-professional dilettante. José has written for NPR's Latino USA, Americas Quarterly, Into and ViceVersa Magazine.