Once Upon a Time in Venezuela is a documentary about the gradual deterioration of the stilt-house fishing village of Congo Mirador on Lake Maracaibo, site of Latin America’s largest oil field. Director Anabel Rodríguez Ríos spent five years filming the villagers and two years editing. All the people of the village want is for dredging equipment to come in and clean up the sediment that is destroying their livelihood and threatening their health.
Enter the world of politics. On one side are the local representatives of the government, the Chavistas, and on the other side are the supporters of the opposition party, who are sick of the government’s inaction.
A little bit of historical background before going on…
Hugo Chávez served as Venezuela’s president from 1999 until his death in 2013. A buffoonish showman who hosted his own television show while he was president, Chávez won free elections by following the clever strategy of using his nation’s oil revenues to actually help the poorest 55% of the Venezuelan population. However, as the oil revenues declined, he became increasingly authoritarian. After he died, Chávez was succeeded by Nicolás Maduro, an incompetent version of Chávez, who also had the disadvantage of looking like Saddam Hussein. The U.S. administration of Donald Trump tried to overthrow Maduro by supporting opposition leader Juan Guaidó (who looked like Barack Obama), but they proved as incompetent as Maduro and failed.
And so to Once Upon a Time in Venezuela. The leader of the Chavistas in Congo Mirador is Tamara Villasmil, who is such a true-believer and fan of the late Hugo Chávez that her house is filled with Chávez collectibles and even a Chávez bobble head. In the film, the opposition is represented by the village’s teacher, Natalie, who is constantly being criticized and threatened with termination by the Chavista forces.
But it is Tamara who is definitely the most interesting character. When election time comes around, she does everything she can to get out the vote for her party, including openly bribing people with food and cash. However, many voters who have previously been responsive to her appeals, have had it with the Chavistas because they have failed to do anything to help the village with its real problems. Cash and food are no longer good enough; some of them want cell phones. Tamara calls party headquarters and asks for ten phones. They offer eight, but they only deliver three. And the opposition wins despite not paying out any bribes. However, Maduro and Tamara remain in power.
The most painful scene comes when Tamara and two comrades go to the city and meet with the regional party chief. They are in awe of him, but Tamara manages to explain Congo Mirador’s desperate need for dredging, because if the sediment is not removed, the inhabitants will be forced to abandon the village, as many of them already have. The party chief serves them a meal. While they eat, he takes a call from another party supporter and tells this person that whatever they need, just send him a text message and he’ll take care of it. Tamara and the problems of Congo Mirador are forgotten.
One disturbing side storyline is the treatment of girls in Congo Mirador. There is an uncomfortable scene in which the female children dress up and parade in front of the adults, while the men study them as if they are considering future purchases. In fact, one of the locals we meet is a girl who was married at 13 and gave birth at 14. Now 15 years old, her child has already died.
Once Upon a Time in Venezuela is, unfortunately, effective in presenting the hopeless situation of citizens of a village that is just too small, too poor and too remote to inspire help from a corrupt government. For a similar story, see the Luxembourgeois film River Tales.
To learn more about what Congo Mirador used to be like, here is a 2007 article by Humberto Márquez.