The Real Hugo Chavez

Frontline details Chavez's early years, his flirtation with professional baseball, and his steady rise up the political ladder. He learned the power of television after an early defeat, and it soon became his most potent ideological weapon.

He had other allies, at least in the beginning. His ascension to his country's presidency was helped, in part, by a media which gave him massive support.

Hmmm ... good thing the United States is immune to that kind of partisan cheerleading during election cycles.

Venezuela was a mess when Chavez took over. The country boasted the largest conventional oil reserves in the western hemisphere, but millions lived in abject poverty. But Chavez had a plan, a mission to create a socialist utopia that would spread the wealth around.

He had more money to spread following a 2002 decree which doubled the amount of oil revenues that ended up in the government coffers. The people rebelled, and Chavez nearly lost power.

From then on, Chavez viewed any opposition -- from the press, his own cabinet, even his countrymen -- as something that would not stand.

Radio Caracas Television, which often broadcasts dissenting views of the regime, isn't granted a license extension.

A normally pro-Chavez newspaper attacks the country's health care status, incurring a quick and furious reply. Chavez rants for 50 minutes about the story on his show, scolding the editor and deploring the fact-free findings. When Frontline asked the editor about the situation, he shakily defends Chavez. Such is the trance, or fear, Venezuelans operate under.

In one breath the special details how Chavez effectively shut down his opposition, then stands back to marvel as his high re-election rates.

All the while, the Frontline narrator tells us, "as for the president, he never stops looking for solutions." Later, it asks the obvious question, "with all the country's wealth, why does it seem so difficult to make things work?"

Those pesky results keep telling us why. Chavez's government set up textile cooperatives which quickly sputter, the workers completely at a loss regarding basic business practices. A housing development hailed by Chavez is an even bigger disaster.

No one epitomizes his support better than community activist Francina Urbina, who worships at the altar of Chavez and insists if not for her dear leader conditions would be much worse.

But viewers will have to wait until the final 10 minutes of the show to find the fruits of Chavez's labor. Bikel bookends her program with a kindred spirit, someone who simply can't believe that socialism has failed -- again.

"It's shocking to come nearly a decade on and see that most of what Hugo Chavez was railing in anger about being left with -- a failed society, misery, insecurity, unequal distribution of wealth -- is still here," John Lee Anderson, a New Yorker scribe, tells Frontline.

Who could have seen that coming?