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.

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Wannabe writer, freelance journalist, college professor, political junkie, bibliophile, cinephile, semi-professional dilettante. José is locked in a constant battle to manage his time for all the things he's passionate about.

26 COMMENTS

    • Hey, nobody’s perfect!

      And to be honest I was moderately impressed that it featured the mention of Black Lagoon.

    • Moon over Parador came out in 1988. Too soon to be a cartoon of Chavez or anyone in Venezuela. I watched the wretched thing, and my impression is that they were depicting a banana (central America) republic.

  1. By far the most bizarre mention of Venezuela in media is in The Dark Forest, the 2008 sequel to The Three Body Problem by Chinese author Liu Cixin.

    I may have some details wrong as I read it a long time ago, but the summary of it with SPOILERS if you are at all interested, just turn away now.

    Really, get out before the spoilers if you plan to read it

    In the previous book Earth is basically under the threat of an incoming invasion by a more advanced race that has put the whole planet under a combo of 1) a research block, as all experiments in advanced physics are now impossible, 2) the same stuff that lets them do that lets them put the whole planet in surveillance and 3) some fifth-columnists that work for the aliens.

    So the UN decide to implement the “Wallfacer” project, which will give some selected individuals absolute discretion to implement whatever plans they think will come to ensure humanity victory, with the assumption they have to be very devious because, again, the aliens know what they are doing.

    One of the Wallfacers is Rey Diaz, president of Venezuela. Which seems to be what you would imagine if Maduro was a second Chávez. And the guy starts his plan.

    But the aliens and the fifth column have their own Wallbreakers that are tasked with figuring out the plans and discredit, sabotage or derail them. And the Wallbreaker for Díaz figures out quickly that even with his attempts to disguise it, the plan is to set up a system in which the whole solar system would be sent to crash into the sun, as a MAD deterrance to the aliens. Like, fuck off back to your planet or you will get nothing here.

    Once unmasked Díaz returns to Venezuela… where the population rises up and kills him.

    Here in our reality, things have not played exactly the same yet, although if we substract the stellar aspect, the capacity of the chavistas to ensure total destruction of everything is not theoretical and not derailed, just contained to Venezuelan borders.

    • Contained to Venezuelan borders for now, Jesus. But they might take a page from Kim’s playbook and become a nuclear power by starving their own people to do it.

      Oh! Wait….

    • A Chavista-run nuclear bomb programme would surely end with some flunkies dying of uranium poisoning and some guy with a few more millions in Andorra after getting dollars to buy the tech and returning home with the manual for a North Korean microwave.

  2. One mention that surprised me as it went under the radar was 2015’s Batman: Arkham Knight, where it is mentioned that the titular Knight and his army of highly-armed, highly-trained troops built up their forces in the one spot in the continent lawless enough to allow for such a thing. I’ll let you guess.

    There’s also Mercenaries 2, which *hoo-boy*, that’s its own tale.

    I’m still waiting for Jake Sully and the Marines to drop by here so we can have our Avatar future, by the way.

    About Black Lagoon, it’s amusing to point out said landowner was killed in a rally for the “Movimiento Quinta Republica” in Calabozo circa 1995, can’t remember quite when. It sure was an unexpected twist!

  3. Meanwhile, the Maduro, Chavez and Chavism Wikipedia entries remain on a positive outlook venturing into straight lies or lack of facts.
    IMO, from the impact stand point, this is more relevant than the rare tv & movies references on Venezuela.

  4. On September 20, 2006, Hugo Chávez said it smelled of brimstone at the UN General Assembly, referencing Mr. Danger,

    Most non-Venezuelans didn’t realize that Chávez was making reference to Mr. Danger in Rómulo Gallegos’s book Doña Bárbara. Nor did they realize that Gallegos had been President of Venezuela.

  5. What? No mention of Danny Glover stellar movies about Venezuela and Chavez (he got paid enough (in Bolivar’s and Coke I’m sure)

  6. I refuse to put money in the pockets of the leftist Hollywood crowd . Please don’t support them by going to see their movies. And De Niro….aw hell….don’t even get me started.

  7. Jose Gonzalz, I suppose you’re still writing fiction, as in, “…long, painful road for rehabilitation, but if Cuba sort of could with that government they have…”–Geez, “La Isla Feliz” de Chavez, all over again.

    • Scratch the surface of any establishment academic or pseudo-journo and you’ll find a fully indoctrinated marxist. Many of them don’t even realize the depth of their own bigotry: “marxism GOOD, everything else BAD!” They don’t mind over one hundred million murders, billions enslaved, countless families torn apart, uncountable wealth destroyed.

  8. Report: U.S. confiscated $800 million from top Venezuelan official

    By Antonio Maria Delgado

    The U.S. government has frozen about $800 million in assets from senior Venezuelan leader Diosdado Cabello Miami journalist Oscar Haza reported Tuesday during his morning radio show on Miami’s Spanish-language Zeta 92.3.

    Haza, who said his information came from “important sources” in the Trump administration, also said that Cabello’s daughter, Daniella Cabello, was turned away when she flew to the United States and was put on a plane to Caracas. He did not specify when.

    Venezuela has been engulfed in economic and political turmoil under the regime of President Nicolas Maduro. Cabello is one of the top leaders in the troubled country.

    “A total of $800 million has been seized and proven to belong to Diosdado Cabello,” Haza reported on his radio program. “That could cover about two months of Venezuela’s debt service payments.”

    Among the 12 seized properties is a luxury apartment on New York City’s Central Park, Haza added.

    The information could not be confirmed independently by el Nuevo Herald, but the Trump administration a few weeks ago put Cabello on the Treasury Department’s blacklist, which in essence allows officials to freeze his U.S. banks accounts and property sales. Treasury accused him of corruption, narco-trafficking and mineral smuggling.

    Cabello flatly denied Haza’s version from Caracas on Twitter.

    “The right, in its desperate effort to create and believe its own lies, now is including my daughter. According to their news media, from Diosdado Cabello the United States took away $800 million and deported Daniella. Another lie, another infamy. We will overcome!” Cabello tweeted in Spanish.

    “How lacking intelligence would I be if at this point I would have $800 million in the United States and that in addition I would expose my daughter to travel to that country… A little more imagination, lords of lies.Make the effort of thinking please,” he added.

    On his morning radio show, Haza said that Washington’s sanctions have been a severe blow Cabello.

    “They have hit the heart of the engine room of his economic battleship, the product of drug trafficking and the business deals done for his benefit,” the journalist added.

    Cabello, former president of the Venezuelan legislature, was upset by treatment of his daughter when she landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials told her that her visa had been canceled and put her on a plane to Venezuela, Haza said.

    The confiscations of Cabello’s properties are part of U.S. government efforts to identify and freeze the wealth of Maduro regime officials linked to corruption and drug trafficking.

    Cabello was sanctioned last month along with his brother, Jose David, his wife Marleny Josefina Contreras, and his business partner, Rafael Sarria.

    “Aside from money laundering and the illegal export of minerals, Cabello is also directly involved in drug trafficking activities,” said the Treasury statement said, announcing his addition to the sanctions list.

    ——–

    Damn, if true, Diodados must be pissed. 800 mil is a chunk of change. And the poor daughter, with her heart set on a lavish vacation in the US.

  9. An episode of the ‘A-Team’ -which I later found is called ‘In plane sight’- shows drug dealers beign tricked into confusing a Venezuelan National Guard patrol with the Colombian military. By moving the border marks a couple hundred meters.
    When the trap is set, the Venezuelan officer in charge tells the drug dealers who try to bribe him ‘You cannot do that this side of the border, this is the Venezuela’… then the bad guys are detained and the A-Team completes its mission.

    Times have changed.

    • Wow some have strong memories – now I remember that show while living in Europe and also remembered thinking where in hell Hollywood had mischaracterized Venezuelan National Guard as honest people. Good job.

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