The Cult Following of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez

PHOTO: A picture of Venezuelas President Hugo Chavez is held up alongside an image of Jesus Christ at a rally by Chavez supporters in Caracas, Venezuela, Thursday, Jan. 10.

Ariana Cubillos/AP Photo

When telenovela actor Winston Vallenilla spoke at a massive rally in support of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez yesterday, he was not just speaking for himself. He was speaking for all Chavistas. "Today is a historic day in which the eyes of the world are on Venezuela" he screamed into a microphone. "We have shown to the world today, that we love Chávez…today all of Venezuela is Chávez, all of us are Chávez."

The audience, carrying a sea of signs that read "yo soy chavez," (we are Chávez) cheered at the obvious revelation.

Cancer treatment in Cuba prevented Hugo Chávez from officially being sworn into his fourth consecutive term in office that day, as was scheduled by Venezuela´s constitution.

In his absence, Venezuelan officials conducted a massive rally in front of the Miraflores Presidential Palace in Caracas, which included a keynote speech by Chávez´s handpicked succesor, Vice President Nicolas Maduro. Behind him sat the presidents of Uruguay, Nicaragua and Bolivia, and the leaders of several small Caribbean nations that rely on aid from the Venezuelan government.

During this event, Chávez supporters swore allegiance to their leader and wished him a speedy recovery from cancer surgery. They also voiced their support for a recent ruling by Venezuela´s Supreme Court, which says that Chavez´s mandate to rule the country has been automatically renewed, even if he missed his inauguration ceremony, and has not appeared in public for almost a month.

"We are Chávez" was one of the main slogans during Thursday´s rally. (Photo Jesus Olarte/Univision)

To give the event an additional propaganda boost, the Venezuelan state-run TV channel Venezolana de Television (VTV) changed its regular programming, and in the hours prior to the rally, it ran clip after clip of Chávez supporters in the streets of Caracas and several other cities, giving viewers a piece of their mind.

"What Julio Borges needs is a course in constitutional law," one woman said in reference to a well-known opposition leader. "You will never come back (to power), you lackey of the empire, you liar, you loser. The people are not stupid, down with the oligarchy!"

"I would give my heart for Chávez," added a 69 year old man who claimed to have 29 children, and said his family benefited from subsidized food programs put in place by the Venezuelan government. "I don´t care about living any more. I would die for Chávez, because the people need him to continue living."

"The blood of Christ will cover you, and cure you Chávez" said yet another woman interviewed by VTV.

Such deep devotion for Chávez is not good news for Venezuela´s opposition, which will have to face a Chavista candidate in presidential elections, if the socialist leader does not recover from cancer.

Thousands attended the rally in support of Chavez on Thursday (Photo: Fernando Llano/AP Photo)

The love that some Venezuelans feel towards their president also means that Chávez´s death would unleash a tidal wave of tears in the tropical country, that could perhaps only compare to the events that followed the death of Princess Diana of Wales, or the massive acts of public mourning that came after Kim Jong Il´s death was announced in North Korea.

But, how did such fervor come about?

Tomas Straka a history professor at the Andres Bello University in Carcacas, says that this "quasi-religious" devotion harks back to 1992, the year in which Chávez first appeared on the country´s political scene.

Chávez, then a 38 year old paratrooper, tried to overthrow the highly unpopular -and semi-broke- government of Carlos Andres Perez through a coup attempt. He failed but appeared on television with his head held high. Donning military fatigues the young Chávez called on his fellow coup supporters to drop their weapons, and avoid further violence, because "for the moment," the objectives of his revolution had not been achieved.

"He had a deep emotional impact in a society that was desperate and ridden with anxiety," Straka said in a phone interview. "Some elements of society saw no solution to their most fundamental problems and they saw in Chávez a savior, or an avenger of those groups that had no hope."

Straka argues that after Chávez became president in 1999, the Venezuelan government slowly began to form a cult of personality towards him, through intense marketing schemes that associated his image with most of the government´s social programs and depicted Chávez as a great benefactor of the people. A weekly TV show in which Chávez spoke about his government plans, signed government decrees and solved day-to-day problems in far flung regions of the country, also cemented his image as a strong and ever-present leader.

"Personalist governments had existed in Venezuela in the past," Straka said. "But no one else had as much (oil) money as this government. Chávez´ capacity to penetrate mass media has also been without precedent."

Vice President Nicolas Maduro addressed Chavez supporters on Thursday (Fernando Llano/AP Photo)

According to Straka, the portrayal of Chávez as a mythical figure also grew as the former military commander found a way to survive unforeseen political challenges, like a coup attempt in April 2002. Straka couldn´t avoid drawing the parallels between this event, and the passion of Christ.

"On the 3rd day (after the coup attempt) Chávez came back, descending from heaven on a helicopter, at a moment when it looked like he had been vanquished," Straka said. "Events like this one make some people believe that he has some sort of privileged relationship with Providence."

Not all academics back the view that in Venezuela government agencies have created a cult of personality towards Chávez. George Ciccariello-Maher, a political science professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia, argues that Chávez is wildly popular because he has created a political system which provides direct benefits to the poor, like the subsidized supermarkets mentioned by the man who wanted to "donate his heart" to Chávez during Thursday´s rally.

Ciccariello-Maher, who is about to publish a book on the rise of socialism in Venezuela, also argues that the Chávez government has expanded opportunities for the poor to directly participate in government, through mechanisms like grassroots councils and communes.

"Chávez is a person that in some way embodies an entirely new system of government, so I think it is entirely natural that people would identify with him in a number of ways," Ciccariello-Maher said.

And the "we are Chávez," slogans?

Ciccariello-Maher sees this, not as a sign that people have been indoctrinated but, as a sign that people want to help run Venezuela. When people are saying they are Chávez, it just means that they also want to take the reins of democracy, like the president.

Chavez´s popularity probably arises from a mix of Ciccariello-Maher's and Straka's explanations. It certainly appears that way when one considers that since the socialist leader has been battling cancer in Cuba, the Venezuelan government has been keen to keep his image present in people´s minds through ads and events like the one staged on Thursday.

One masterfully edited video, which is now broadcast on Venezuelan State TV several times per day, mixes images of Chavez with pictures of historical greats like John Lennon, Abraham Lincoln and Albert Einstein. A poem about utopias is recited in the video and it´s followed by a recording of Chavez´s voice.

"I demand absolute loyalty," the video says over a series of pictures of Chávez´s life. "Because I am not an individual, I am a people, damn it!"

During Thursday´s event in Caracas Vice President Nicolas Maduro peppered his speech with references to Chávez, thanking the comandante for what he had done for the Venezuelan people and what he had taught them. At one point, when the crowd started a chant that said "El Pueblo Con Maduro" The people stand with Maduro, Chávez´s handpicked successor, quickly changed it to a more traditional Chavista battle call. "U, A, Chavez No Se Va!" Chávez is not leaving, Maduro chanted. The crowd quickly followed his lead.

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