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Hugo Chavez returns to life in TV show criticized by allies

Associated Press logo Associated Press 1/30/2017 By ALBA TOBELLA and JOSHUA GOODMAN, Associated Press
In this Jan. 25, 2017 photo, Colombia's actor Andres Parra plays the role of Venezuela's former President Hugo Chavez during the filming of "El Comandante" in Bogota, Colombia. The life of Chavez, who mesmerized Venezuela’s impoverished masses before dying of cancer in 2013, is being dramatized in a Spanish-language TV series that is generating a backlash even before it airs. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara) © The Associated Press In this Jan. 25, 2017 photo, Colombia's actor Andres Parra plays the role of Venezuela's former President Hugo Chavez during the filming of "El Comandante" in Bogota, Colombia. The life of Chavez, who mesmerized Venezuela’s impoverished masses before dying of cancer in 2013, is being dramatized in a Spanish-language TV series that is generating a backlash even before it airs. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — The revolution will now be televised.

In this Jan. 25, 2017 photo, Colombia's actor Andres Parra plays the role of Venezuela's former President Hugo Chavez during the filming of "El Comandante" in Bogota, Colombia. Produced by Sony Pictures Television, “El Comandante” premieres the first week of February throughout Latin America and in the spring will be broadcast in the U.S. by the Telemundo network. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara) © The Associated Press In this Jan. 25, 2017 photo, Colombia's actor Andres Parra plays the role of Venezuela's former President Hugo Chavez during the filming of "El Comandante" in Bogota, Colombia. Produced by Sony Pictures Television, “El Comandante” premieres the first week of February throughout Latin America and in the spring will be broadcast in the U.S. by the Telemundo network. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

The life of Hugo Chavez, who mesmerized Venezuela's impoverished masses before dying of cancer in 2013, is being dramatized in a Spanish-language TV series that is generating a backlash even before it airs.

Produced by Sony Pictures Television, "El Comandante" premieres this week throughout Latin America and in the spring will be broadcast in the U.S. by the Telemundo network.

Conceived by a staunch Chavez critic, the 60-episode series aims to retell the leftist leader's improbable rise to power from his roots in poor, rural Venezuela while showing how the former tank commander's authoritarianism laid the groundwork for the country's current economic mess.

Former Venezuelan planning minister Moises Naim said he came up with the idea after spending years trying to explain Chavez's hold over Venezuelans to friends in Washington, where he now lives.

"There are two things nobody can dispute regardless of ideology: The first is that Chavez was an extraordinarily charismatic politician who seduced people all over the world, and the other is that Venezuela today has been destroyed by a major crisis," said Naim. "It's very hard to argue the current tragedy has nothing to do with Hugo Chavez."

Many of Chavez's achievements and failures during 14 years in power are already well-known. It would be hard to find a world leader who spent more time in front of the camera, making his presidency something of a performance.

Venezuelan co-director Henry Rivero said that to make the series more entertaining and less like a documentary it was necessary to speculate about what happened when the cameras weren't rolling.

At the Bogota studio where the series is being filmed, Colombian actor Andres Parra, playing Chavez, lit a cigarette and leaned over to an aide to confide his plans for a constitutional referendum that would let him run for re-election indefinitely.

"We're talking about changing everything, going from capitalism to socialism," says the fictional Chavez, who was never seen smoking in public.

To be sure, this non-sanctioned retelling of Chavez's life has drawn fire.

In a state of the nation speech this month, President Nicolas Maduro denounced the series as imperialist "trash." Chavez's ex-wife has threatened legal action against Sony.

Diosdado Cabello, leader of the ruling socialist party, has said that casting Parra, who previously played cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar, to depict Chavez is part of a right-wing, foreign-backed effort to tarnish the leader's image.

"They attacked him when he was alive and now he's not physically with us," Cabello said last week, urging government supporters to erect signs on buildings and in work places that read: "Here we don't talk bad of Chavez."

Venezuela's divisive politics aside, playing such a complex individual so fresh in people's memory is a dream, said Parra.

Before filming, the actor spends two hours getting fitted with a curly-haired wig, prosthetic double chin and skin-darkening makeup. He has worked with a voice coach for more than a year, spending hundreds of hours watching Chavez's marathon speeches on YouTube to mimic his high-pitched laugh and use of his left hand.

"The charisma Chavez had isn't something you can learn," said Parra, who greets visitors to the set with a wide smile and hand raised high in the style of the late populist leader.

The show won't be broadcast in Venezuela. That saddens Rivero, who said he thinks his compatriots could benefit from another look at recent history. He said when the project began he spent days in tears remembering the revolution's painful milestones, like the protests that preceded a 2002 coup attempt.

That so many Chavez allies have dismissed the series without seeing it shows how insecure they are about his legacy, Parra said.

"Maybe it's because they know the truth," he said. "Or maybe it's because through a TV series we have shown blemishes, or recreated situations, in which the image of the human being Hugo Chavez they wanted to construct doesn't stand so tall."

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Associated Press Writer Fabiola Sanchez contributed to this report from Caracas, Venezuela.

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Alba Tobella is on Twitter: https://twitter.com/albatobella

Joshua Goodman is on Twitter: https://twitter.com/apjoshgoodman His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/journalist/joshua-goodman

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