“Venezuela Undercover”: What ABC’s Foreign Correspondent left behind

ABC Foreign Correspondent reporter Eric Campbell.

Foreign Correspondent disappointed with “Venezuela Undercover”, a good-looking but trivial piece of “investigative journalism”.

The 30-minute documentary by reporter Eric Campbell and producer Mike Davis was first screened on ABC on March 21.

It begins by asserting that Venezuela is, today, a “disaster”, though very little in the documentary is offered that might allow the viewer to understand why.

The imagery of Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, looks colourful and striking on screen, but the material accompanies a formulaic narration. Caracas is either manic and dangerous, or a stagnant and politically depressed city.

Beyond Campbell’s statements on “populism”, “socialism” and “oil wealth”, very little is said apart from a reference to the collapse in oil prices in recent years and the government having nationalised private companies.

What the documentary does do very well is fulfil the tropes of how one should report on a “socialist state”. We are either told or made to think that foreign journalists are banned, that the Venezuelan government does not want what is happening in the country to be known, and that little news gets out.

Venezuela is portrayed as some kind of tropical and disorderly North Korea.

Campbell’s closing lines speaks of “leaving behind” 32 million Venezuelans, presumably all people he would save if he could. But the fact is that journalism on Venezuela abounds and all manner of writings, footage and reports on the country can be found.

There is barely any examination of how today’s Venezuela has come about. Campbell and Davis interview sociologist Margarita Lopez Maya, though the grabs are underwhelming. I wish Campbell and Davis would contextualise a little.

Lopez Maya, a well-regarded Venezuelan academic, accompanied chavismo up until 2009 or thereabouts. Many others have supported chavismo throughout its various phases. The “Bolivarian revolution”, former president Hugo Chavez, Venezuelan social movements and chavismo itself, have all had various chapters since 1998.

Margarita Lopez Maya, along with Edgardo Lander, to mention another well-known Venezuelan sociologist, have both analysed, questioned or supported chavismo in its different periods. Today, both have distanced themselves from Maduro’s government, but others remain.

Nevertheless, Campbell and Davis’s postcard from Venezuela chooses to present a rather trite analysis from Lopez Maya in which she warns viewers of Donald Trump’s populism, “because Chavez in 1998 is like Trump today”.

Several opposition politicians are referred to on-screen and Maria Corina Machado is given some weight.

As a presidential candidate who ran against Chavez in 2012 by promoting “popular capitalism”, it might be surprising to hear her speak of “solidarity”, even if it is coupled with talk of “innovation, prosperity and freedom”.

This was the only occasion in which talk of solidarity was presented throughout the documentary: once, and by a pro-market politician. That this was so, should have led Campbell and Davis to seek other voices and to ask better questions.

Still, what is truly striking is that there are no government voices. The assumption here is that given the undercover nature of the filming, no government representatives could be approached.

Are we supposed to absolve Australian journalists when overseas in “troubled spots” from the basics of journalism?

The documentary could have presented any number of voices from supporters or leftist analysts speaking about Venezuela’s current situation. The well-known and very vocal members of Marea Socialista (Socialist Tide), a faction recently expelled from the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), come to mind.

Despite the lack of analysis chavismo is, nevertheless, brought into the documentary in a significant way - as a series of threats experienced by Campbell and Davis themselves: “if the government finds out…”, “if we are kidnapped by this gang…” and by Venezuelans who are “watched over” by Chavez’s ghost.

 Chavismo is emptied of any reason in the documentary through its discursive absence.

At some moment, we are told that Chavez, four years after his death, still counts with a strong following and that the government itself has loyal supporters. And yet no socialists, no Venezuelan left, no articulate analysts detailing the difficulties of the Venezuelan “petro-state” or of governing from the left in Latin America are brought into the frame.

In its place, we see Campbell visiting malandros (criminals) in a Caracas slum. Chavismo is a threat, a ghostly presence or simply nonsensical.

The documentary trivialises what has been a significant experience in Venezuela, for its people and the left. There are no interviews with members of the government-backed community councils, the vast popular and community run media or the numerous social movements.

These organisations and forms of political engagement, reinvigorated by chavismo since the early 2000s and often engaged in complex negotiations with state power, are simply erased from Venezuelan reality.

I would have been interested in seeing an ABC-funded piece of journalism following the various state-backed food distribution networks, at the heart of the current food shortages while also a measure to address the crisis.

But Campbell and Davis render chavismo banal, reducing it to the recklessness of Chavez’s charisma and people’s adoration of a now dead leader.

[Carlos Morreo, a Venezuelan citizen and Australian permanent resident, is a researcher at the ANU’s School of Politics and International Relations in Canberra. Between 2008 and 2009 he worked in the Venezuela’s Ministry of Popular Power for the Environment. A slightly longer version of this article first appeared on his blog .]

[This article appeared as part of the April 2017 broadsheet.]