Hugo Chávez’s Totally Bizarre Talk Show
A ribbon unfurls in the colors of the Venezuelan flag, while a drum roll announces the show’s title sequence and a trumpet tootles. Block-letter words pop up on the screen: “humanity,” “struggle,” “socialism.” It looks for all the world like a “Daily Show” parody. And then comes a close-up of the show’s host and star, Hugo Chávez, president of Venezuela, usually dressed in all red or a military jacket, sometimes crowned with a Che-style beret, standing on the road among his supporters or before a live audience at Miraflores Palace in Caracas. The show is entirely unscripted. Chávez usually begins by stating the date and saying, “Aló Presidente!” then grinning and giving himself a round of applause. “Aló Presidente!” he repeats and you can’t tell if he’s introducing the program by its title or simply greeting and congratulating himself.
“Aló Presidente” (“Hello President”) is broadcast live in Venezuela on Sundays from 11 a.m. until Chávez is done talking, which can take anywhere from four to eight hours. It is the only television show in the world in which a head of state regularly invites cameras to follow him as he governs. (Two other South American presidents, Evo Morales of Bolivia and Rafael Correa of Ecuador, briefly spun off their own shows after appearing as guests on “Aló Presidente” and being interviewed Oprah-style by Chávez.) But with the exception of the logorrheic Fidel Castro, it’s hard to imagine another political figure with the combination of manic exhibitionism and entertainer’s stamina required to star in this sort of show, never mind the autocratic control required to make it, literally, must-see TV in his home country.
The show has been running for more than a decade. In its most infamous scene, from 2006, Chávez sits at a desk in a field before a collection of rural supporters, while cows swish their tails behind him. “You are an ignorant man,” he says, looking straight into the camera, addressing President George W. Bush, whom for the purposes of the show he has nicknamed Mr. Danger after a villain in a popular Venezuelan novel. It is the height of the Iraq war. “You are a donkey, Mr. Danger,” Chávez says, then goes on to call him a coward, assassin and genocidist. “It’s very easy to command an army from far away,” he says. “If one day you ever get the crazy idea of invading Venezuela, I’ll be waiting for you on this savanna.” His eyes blaze. The crowd cheers. “Come on here, Mr. Danger!” he cries. “Come on here, Mr. Danger!”