Early on in his tenure as Venezuelan president, Nicolas Maduro responded to growing criticism of government mismanagement, skyrocketing crime, inflation and chaos by reminding his countrymen that, at the very least, tenemos patria ("we have a homeland").
"We have that homeland," Maduro explained, "because we do not bow before any empire." And prescient words they were, because just this past weekend Venezuelans experienced a rather different take on the "homeland" theme... and it sure wasn't pretty.
(Spoiler alert: Fans of the hit U.S. TV series Homeland might want to avoid reading the rest of this article, since many have yet to see the episode under discussion.)
First, an update: Homeland currently finds its main character, ex-Marine turned suspected terrorist Nick Brody, on the lam from the United States authorities. (Brody's character is played by Damian Lewis, shown second from left in the image above.) Saddled with a ten-million-dollar bounty and gut-shot by Colombians, Brody is whisked off by ostensibly friendly militants to convalesce in the emblematic unfinished Caracas skyscraper known as the "Tower of David." The building is a kind of vertical slum that's been featured in stories in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and elsewhere.
In the early 1990s, as fleetingly noted in the episode's dialogue, the Tower of David was a pet project of the successful Venezuelan financier David Brillembourg. Brillembourg had envisioned it as the headquarters of his far-flung financial empire. Soon after Brillembourg's death in 1993, the Venezuelan economy came crashing down in a series of financial crises. The cranes stopped, the workmen were sent home, and the project was abandoned. The national authorities seized the tower soon after but failed to put it to good use. So the building lay empty and unfinished for years, a visible reminder of the Caracas that might have been.
Then, in 2007, a reformed gang leader urged a group of poor Venezuelans to occupy the building and make it their own. The squatters jerry-rigged electricity and improvised their way around its missing walls, doors, and windows, eventually transforming the tower into the slum that it remains to this day.
In Homeland's telling, the building has now become a den of drugs and delinquency, a place where gang members receive sexual favors from prostitutes in full view of small children, the elderly, and colorful murals of the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. At one point, in an act of dramatic extralegal justice, militants throw a resident thief from the heights of the tower with seeming impunity. It's a poignant illustration of the depths to which Brody has fallen in his quest to survive. But it's also a harrowing reminder to Venezuelans of how their country, which boasts one of the world's highest murder rates, is sometimes viewed overseas.
Some fans have criticized Homeland's recent installments for failing to live up to the show's past high standards. But let's forget about that for a moment and focus instead on the highly entertaining reaction to Homeland's latest sally by the Venezuelan authorities, who were surprisingly quick to respond given the fact that the Tower of David episode is not scheduled to air on Venezuelan cable for another two weeks (assuming, of course, that it isn't blocked by government censors first).
A statement currently being circulated by SIBCI, the media arm of the Venezuelan Ministry of Information and Communications, decries the "distortion of Venezuela" by a series that just happens to be, as they put it, "President Barack Obama's favorite show." Noting Homeland's roots as a remake of an Israeli series (the Venezuelan government is not exactly a fan of the Jewish state), the SIBCI's riposte was also eager to point out that actors on the show have been given private tours of CIA facilities at Langley, Virginia -- opening the door, no doubt, to all manner of shadowy plots and cabals. Here's a choice selection from the statement:
What reasons might there be for Venezuela to appear in a show so openly supported by President Obama, and backed by the CIA? Are they preparing the American people to feel justified in some aggression against our country, or for more open support of Venezuela's own rightwing radicals? Only time will tell.
Yet not all Latin Americans agree. Ivan Gallo, a Colombian blogger, takes a more opportunistic view. Calling the series "marvelous," Gallo explains:
During the nineties, there was a relentless attack against Colombia by Hollywood. They would go to the most miserable towns in northern Mexico, where they filmed all the takes needed to recreate a convenient Bogota. People riding on chicken trucks, mercenaries at every corner.... Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford, or Michael Douglas would begin as victims of the narco-guerillas, and then proceed to single-handedly defeat great armies. One gringo was worth more than a battalion of Colombians armed to the teeth.
He goes on to note, gratefully, that
Colombia has now stopped being a scenario for such action movies thanks to Chávez and his farcical government. If it weren't for the Supreme Commander we'd probably still be seeing regular images of "Medellín" with a strange resemblance to Tangamandapio.
Gallo may have a point. The Homeland episode, which was filmed in Puerto Rico with images of the Venezuelan capital spliced in, seemed to feature primarily Colombian and Cuban actors (judging by their accents). Of late Venezuela does seem to have become a go-to setting for dangerous misadventures that can be better filmed elsewhere.
For example, the first-person shooter video game Mercenaries 2 puts its protagonist through a Grand Theft Auto-style violent adventure in Caracas. And even the 2009 James Cameron blockbuster Avatar, the highest-grossing film in history, featured the following exchange, in which a commanding officer prepares his subordinate for the dangers of a distant planet:
Col. Quaritch: I read your file, Corporal. Venezuela, that was some mean bush. Nothin' like that here, though. You got some heart, kid, showin' up here.
Jake Sully: Figured it was just another hellhole.
Just another hellhole, indeed.
Transitions is the group blog of the Democracy Lab channel, a collaboration between Foreign Policy and the Legatum Institute.