In the past 15 years or so U.S. media’s representation of Venezuela has followed a marked trend. In TV shows like Homeland, The Good Wife, and even Parks and Recreation the country and its government have been portrayed, at best, as filled with problems and lukewarm towards the U.S. and at worst, as a revitalized version of Banana Republic stereotypes hailing from the Cold War.
The latest entry to that list is the latest season of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, which dropped on November 1 on Amazon Prime. The show is based on the novel series by Tom Clancy about the adventures of CIA agent Jack Ryan, here played by John Krasinski.
When the setting of the new season was revealed, reactions ranged from amusement to the idea of a “Nuclear Venezuela” to indignation, including the Venezuelan government, with Minister of Culture, Ernesto Villegas, calling it “crass war propaganda disguised as entertainment.” Given than the first season of the show has been praised for breaking from previous incarnations of Clancy’s hero, let’s give the benefit of the doubt to Jack Ryan and check it out.
The season opens with a mysterious boat involved in launching a satellite that is found in La Guaira—Venezuela’s main port. The CIA fears Russia is providing weapons under the table to President Nicolás Reyes. Rising from a humble background to leading the nation with a revolutionary speech, his government is now mired by corruption, hyperinflation, crime and a failing infrastructure despite having the largest deposits of oil and other minerals.
Ryan goes to Caracas as part of the team of U.S. Senator Jim Moreno —who shares a couple of traits and none of the flaws of Marco Rubio— to meet with Reyes and investigate a mysterious mining company working in the Orinoco River. After the senator is assassinated in Caracas, hell breaks loose for everyone involved.
At the same time, Reyes is in middle of a presidential campaign against Gloria Bonalde, a college professor turned politician, and wife of a former cabinet member, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Cristina Umaña, who plays Bonalde, has admitted to have used Venezuelan opposition leader María Corina Machado as one of her inspirations to play the character, which doesn’t get lost to those following current Venezuelan politics.
Reyes, despite being a stand-in for both Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro, is more difficult to define, only sharing minimal traits with either of them. In fact, he’s very hard to define at all. He calls himself a revolutionary, is antagonistic to the U.S., and his party logo seems to be a mix between Venezuela’s seal and red rooster of the Communist Party of Venezuela, but at the same time, he and his crew complain about left-wingers.
It’s never defined why or for how long Reyes has been in power either. He’s mentioned to have been elected for a presidential term six years prior, but it is implied to be longer than that. His entire cabinet seems to be the disgruntled General Ubarri —no party structure, military high command, or just rank-and-file fervent followers— while Bonalde is followed by a ragtag team of college supporters.
In fact, the show basically tries to make the case that had it not been for Jack Ryan, the entire CIA would’ve forgotten there’s a country with roughly the size and population of Texas, within a three-hour flight from Miami, and with the largest oil reserves in the world.
Don’t get me wrong, on many fronts one can see the production team did their homework. From authentic slang —despite accents— to brands, posters, and flags. A quick shot of the building used as the Miraflores Presidential Palace shows a sign with a real-life Simón Bolívar quote and a news conference of Reyes shows him standing in front of apparently real-life Venezuelan state flags.
Plus, there are some simplifications that one can let pass if you don’t think too much about it. School or military uniforms, for instance, or Caracas looking suspiciously small and missing skyscrapers. Probably the most jarring was seemingly dropping names of districts in Caracas or other Venezuelan things at random while, at the same time, having eight episodes set in Venezuela but not one arepa in sight.
But what makes Jack Ryan and similar productions so pernicious is that, in many things, some of the things they say aren’t wrong. There is a humanitarian crisis, there are serious accusations of fraud on the last Venezuelan presidential election, as there are concerns about mining gold, coltan, and other rare minerals in the Orinoco basin.
They’re not wrong… But they don’t matter. It’s just a prop. For the showrunners, you can see Venezuela is a less fully-fleshed country filled with history, culture, a diverse population and complex problems than a “Venezuela” made up from half-remembered New York Times front-page stories and background images on CNN.
It’s just a backdrop in which American and European characters play out their story, while the rest of the world stands back and looks. The story ends. Sometimes things get better for the poor locals, sometimes they don’t and it’s a comment on how some things never end. The hero takes the plane back home and feels grateful not to live there.
José González Vargas is a Venezuelan journalist who has written for several outlets, including Latino USA, Latino Rebels, Caracas Chronicles and Into. He tweets from @Maxmordon.