The Real Hugo Chavez

The best way to understand Frontline's latest special, The Hugo Chavez Show, is to read the interview conducted with its producer, Ofra Bikel.

In it, Bikel refers to Fidel Castro as a "hero" and claims she still doesn't know who the real Hugo Chavez is.

Anyone who watches The Hugo Chavez Show, airing tonight on PBS stations as well as online, can give her a pretty quick answer. He's a fraud -- a leader out to help the poor who does the opposite, a man who touts his country's democracy but does all he can to destroy it. His love for himself is second only to his lust for power. He's also a man who will blame his ineffectiveness on the evil U.S., cynical Europe, even his own subordinates before ever questioning his own policies.

And, when the will of the people doesn't match his own, he goes over its collective head.

But the poor love him anyway, and we're told history will remember him for bringing the issues of the downtrodden to the table. Isn't that a blessing?

The Hugo Chavez Show doesn't shortchange his sizable flaws. But it does so with caution, and it gets routinely swept up by the man's charm.

It's hard to imagine certain world leaders, say President George W. Bush, getting such a bland excoriation for such behavior. A few people begrudgingly acknowledge that Chavez's brand of "21st century socialism" is a disaster, but they do so without stridency, or sometimes with apology to Chavez himself.

The special is built around Aló Presidente, the leader's weekly television show. It's a meandering program in which Chavez sings, recites his policies, and roasts his enemies. (Chavez wouldn't agree to be interviewed for the special.)

It's refreshing to see such a blunt politician in action, an impulsive and chatty man who completely understands the power of the medium. But Chavez uses his bully pulpit literally, pushing around anyone who dares challenge him.