By Chris Neilson
Democracy is alive and well in Venezuela, or so it seems from Clifton Ross’s intriguing feature-length documentary Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out. Ross explores Hugo Chávez’s rise to power, and the subsequent experiment in 21st century Bolivarian Revolution through interviews with American and Venezuelan academics, and Venezuelan government officials, community activists and educators, and co-op farmers and merchants.
The first third of Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out consists of historical background on Chávez’s rise to power. This introduction is elementary enough that it can be followed by viewers with no prior knowledge, but lively enough that it can sustain the interest of viewers already knowledgeable about this material. Through archival footage and interviews, Ross lays the groundwork for the more interesting subject of the Bolivarian Revolution following Chávez’s rise to power which occupies the later two-thirds of the documentary.
In February 1992, Chávez, a senior Venezuelan military officer, launched a coup against President Carlos Andrés Pérez. Though popularly elected in 1989, American-back Pérez was generally reviled by poor Venezuelans by 1992 following a prolonged period of economic decline. The coup failed, but Chávez negotiated a surrender that included a televised address to his troops and the Venezuelan people explaining that he’d acted in the interests of the poor, and he promised to continue to struggle on their behalf.
Chávez was jailed, only to be pardoned as a fulfillment of a campaign promise by the next Venezuelan President, Rafael Caldera, in 1994. Following his release, Chávez began laying the groundwork for a political victory. In 1998, he successfully ran for President, receiving 56% of the vote.
As President, Chávez launched a broad reorganization of the Venezuelan economy that included a massive public works program, universal social security, free health care and university education, land reform, vigorous corporate tax enforcement, and the nationalization of the oil, mining and heavy manufacturing sectors of the economy. Unhappy with the massive redistribution of wealth, a coup from the right seized power and arrested Chávez on April 11, 2002, but two days later he was freed and restored to power by a popular countercoup. The failure of the reactionary coup, Ross’s interviewees tell us, delegitimized the opposition, and propelled the Bolivarian Revolution ahead twenty years.
The remaining two-thirds of Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out examines the Bolivarian Revolution in practice. It is here that the documentary really gets good. Ross roams around Caracas and the countryside doing interviews and visiting cooperatives and state enterprises. Ross visits a rural savings and loan, a community kitchen, a subsidized community store where the food labels include informational blurbs about the finer points of the national Constitution, and various businesses, farms, and even urban utilities operated as cooperatives by poor slum dwellers.
Ross interviews a manager of a state-owned bookstore who also happens to be a poet and poetry teacher who is enthusiastic about the educational opportunities now available. Ross also interviews another educator who explains that the existing universities are still resistant to reform, and that parallel “Bolivarian universities” have sprung up to train community development organizers. All the interviewees seem generally supportive of Chávez, but what makes these interviews interesting is that the interviewees all express some degree of dissatisfaction with Chávez but in wildly divergent ways.
Views diverge most widely on the Bolivarian Revolution tenant of seeking societal change through immediate economic empowerment rather than gradual economic adjustment. More specifically, the divergence of opinion concerns the practice of providing government loans directly to cooperatives without ensuring that the cooperatives have a viable business plan and capable membership first. A member of a longstanding co-op is critical of this practice because it puts the established cooperatives at a competitive disadvantage. A junior government official complains that only social benefits should be distributed by the government not cash payments to co-ops since most fail without repaying the loans. On the other hand, new co-op members and those seeking to form cooperatives complain that funding has been delivered more slowly than promised, and that loans are not keeping up with needs.
Ross is even allowed to document a poorly performing cooperative business over an 18 month period. When Ross first interviews the all-female membership of a cooperative restaurant, a power struggle is underway between two factions. By the time of Ross’s last interview, most of the original members have been forced out, and the handful remaining are hiring and firing temporary workers on a regular basis to avoid giving them a share in the co-op. This is not how the government envisioned the cooperatives would operate. Worse yet, this is one of the few mildly successful co-ops: 80% fail within two years of opening without paying back the government loans. Despite this poor record, the government officials interviewed do not try to hide any of it, professing only that even the failures are acceptable and expected formative steps in the economic transformation.
Despite the diversity of opinion captured by Ross, the glaring omission is anyone squarely opposed to Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution. Ross interviews no one who has had land appropriated by the State, no one whose wealth has dissipated under heavy taxation, and no one in the universities resistant to the educational reformation initiatives.
Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1. There is aliasing and macroblocking of the image, but the overall look is acceptable, and in keeping with the handheld shooting style.
The 2.0 audio suffers from minor dropouts and distortion. The forced subtitles are overly small and badly colored, with the yellow text often lost against light colored backgrounds. However, the subtitles, in English when the audio is in Spanish, and Spanish when the audio is in English, do appear to provide excellent translations.
Extras consists of two short documentary features by Clifton Ross. Both are far more polemical than the main feature. The first, Messages to the North American People (12 min.) consists of statements by the Venezuelan interviewees from the main feature, addressed to viewers in the United States. Likely these were originally to be included in the main feature, but were cut because of their overt political posturing. These statements all express disbelief that George Bush was reelected President in 2004 after the perceived debacle of his first term. Some are angry, but most are simply bewildered or sympathetic to an American people out of touch with reality. The best of the bunch was this statement seemingly formulated on the spur of the moment by a man in late middle-age:
I don’t know how you’re going to escape the fiction the media has you in so you’ll at last see reality and understand that your lifestyle isn’t yours, but rather was stolen from us in the Third World. We’re willing to share it. We can live in harmony. But the fantasy the media has sold you isn’t real. We’re not terrorists. We don’t want to kill you. We want to live with you, but in equality, if you please. You’ve been partying for a long time. The car you have is half mine. Now give me my half.
The second short, entitled Meeting Chavez (10 min.), is a rant by Ross against the Bush Administration’s lack of response to Katrina and underfunding of primary public schooling. Ross documents a friend who is a teacher in a struggling public elementary school in California. The teacher buys school supplies out of her own pocket. Ross writes a letter to Chávez on behalf of the school asking for funding for the library, athletics program, and school supplies. Chávez reads the letter on Venezuelan television, and follows up with an undisclosed amount of to the school.
Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out is an intriguing look into the Venezuelan socialist economic experiment known as the Bolivarian Revolution. Thanks largely to oil revenues and wealth redistribution, President Hugo Chávez’s Administration has injected enormous amounts of capital into the bottom rungs of the economy. Whether this vast economic experiment will be successful in relieving poverty and producing a sustainable, just, egalitarian, democratic society, remains to be seen.
Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out, and the shorts Messages to the North American People, and Meeting Chavez, have been made freely available for download by Clifton Ross under a Copyleft limited license. They are lawfully available as BitTorrent files on numerous sites.
Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out is highly recommended.