Autumn of the Patriarch: Why the Ghost of Hugo Chávez Still Haunts Venezuela
Venezuela‘s in a mess, but the cult of Chávez has persisted
Last March, presidential macho-man and talk show host, Hugo Chávez, died and left behind a power vacuum the size of his personality. Things haven’t been pleasant in Venezuela since his departure. “I would call the situation ‘managed anarchy,’” Jerry Haar, a professor of finance at Florida International University in Miami, told Bloomberg Businessweek.
The economy of Venezuela is in chaos and a robust black market has risen to service the country, backed by the American dollar. The military stands outside of stores, ordering the employees to sell their goods at deep discounts. Journalists don’t have enough paper to publish the news. Beauty queens are gunned down in the streets.
According to the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence, a non-governmental organization, the homicide rate is one of the world’s highest—higher than neighboring, civil war-stricken Colombia.
This is the situation almost a year after the ascension of current Pres. Nicolás Maduro, the milquetoast successor to one of the greatest dictatorial performances in recent memory. Maduro has inherited control of a country with one of the richest oil reserves in the world, and has carried on strengthening the military with help from Russia.
Venezuela worked—to a point—under Chávez due to his charisma and strong hand, qualities that Maduro does not appear to posses. Luckily for Maduro, the memory of Chávez is alive and well in the country, which the new president capitalized on at every possible turn.
It started a month after Chávez’s death, when Maduro claimed the former president appeared to him as a bird and anointed him as the country’s new leader. Then, in October, Maduro back up the claim of workers who said they saw the face of Chávez appear on the wall of an underground construction site.
But the new president does not have exclusive control over Chávez’s spectre. Like all good legends, Chávez is at the mercy of the teller. In September, an audio file hit the Internet, the contents of which—if they’re to be believed—are of Chávez himself, claiming he was imprisoned after being betrayed by his friends and colleagues. Maduro denied the claim and accused his political rivals of manufacturing the audio.
The ghost of Chávez has become a political tool. He’s a symbol, woven into the mythology of the country he reshaped. To find out how this happened, we exchanged emails with Matthew Rhodes-Purdy, a Ph.D candidate at the University of Texas who studies the Chavista movement.
MG: What is it about Chávez’s personality that allows his influence to endure even after his death?
MRP: Chávez was the first major political figure in modern Venezuelan history to come from outside the traditional oligarchy, as embodied politically in the two major parties (Democratic Action and COPEI) that held power for most of the last half of the 20th century. He was dark skinned, he cursed frequently, and generally spoke the vernacular of the poor and the middle class. It is important to sort out how much of his appeal came from who he was, from how much came from what he represented, as a symbol. I think most of his charisma came from the position he occupied in Venezuelan political history. Charisma is often little more than the ability to be a blank slate, something onto which the dispossessed and the excluded can project their own hopes and dreams.
That said, Chávez could be very eloquent (in an earthy, everyman sort of way), and really was militantly opposed to compromise or conciliation with the remnants of the ancien regime. These elements of his personality, while not (in my opinion) as important as his contextual role as transition figure from oligarchic to populist democracy, they cannot be ignored.
MG: Venezuela is an overwhelmingly Catholic country, to what extent do you feel that Latin American religious practices can explain the way in which Chávez is being remembered and invoked?
MRP: I don’t think Catholicism matters that much in this case; this kind of cult of personality is very common with populist leaders, regardless of religiosity. Eva Peron in Argentina received similar treatment after her death. And this kind of thing is unusual in Chile, for example, which is far more Catholic and religious than Venezuela.
Two factors lead to this sort of treatment. First, you need to remember that Venezuela is part of Caribbean South America, which is the same region that gave birth to Gabriel Garcia Márquez and magical realism. This kind of intermingling of the supernatural and the mundane is not nearly so odd given the cultural context.
Second, I think all this worship of the fallen hero is an attempt to cover deep-seated anxieties about the future of the Bolivarian state. The Chavista coalition is extremely diverse, and various sectors have very different interests. Without Chávez at the top to settle factional disputes and enforce discipline, fears of fracture are justified. Add to this the anti-elite paranoia that runs deep within this movement, and it is easy to see why people would long for the continuing presence of Chávez, even as a ghost.
MG: How long will Chávez’s legacy persist? Have we seen the last of his ghost?
MRP: Chávez fundamentally and irrevocably altered the balance of power in Venezuelan politics. His influence, in that sense, will likely be perpetual. He activated the urban informal poor, Afro-Venezuelans and rural Venezuelans to an extent never before seen, and I don’t see any way to undo those changes. In the immediate term, his influence will largely depend upon the ability of the Bolivarian movement to adapt to the post-Chávez era.
The Chavista movement lacks strong leadership, a clear agenda, and institutions for apportioning influence and power within the movement, renovation and progress are unlikely anytime soon. So the Bolivarians will likely cling to their dead founder for the foreseeable future, meaning that Chávez will now serve as a drag on the movement he helped found, a crutch on which it leans instead of facing its substantial shortcomings head-on.
In some sense, the Bolivarian movement now resembles the Venezuelan political system prior to Chávez’s ascendance. That is, it is stuck in place, unable to grapple with a fundamental change in the political context, relying on hollow appeals to the past and repression rather than finding meaningful solutions. Ironically, the quicker the Chavista movement can lay its leader to rest and move on without him, the more enduring (and positive) his legacy will be.