Every Latin American country has fostered, to some degree, a “Cult of the Hero,” but only Venezuela has raised its founding father, Simon Bolivar, to the extreme of deification.
Shortly after Bolivar’s death in 1830, veneration for him among Venezuelans became a kind of historical sacrament. The particular ingenuity of Hugo Chavez was to mythically identify his revolutionary movement with the person of Bolivar, and to make millions of his countrymen believe that he is the reincarnation of the great liberator who freed Latin America from the domination of Spain. (Fidel Castro had done something similar in Cuba, appropriating the memory of the hero Jose Marti.) Embodied in Chavez, Bolivar was supposed to have returned to free Venezuela and Latin America from Yankee imperialism, depicted as more merciless than its Spanish predecessor.
But Chavez has functioned not just as a “hero” and a caudillo (the term for an authoritarian military leader), but also as a postmodern redeemer. For years, he has appeared every Sunday on a six-hour “reality” show called “Hello, President!” (“Alo Presidente!”). Chavez, who doesn’t lack histrionic skills, carries on monologues, dances, sings, recites poetry and prose, reads letters, states his love for his people, and inveighs against the American empire and those Venezuelans he considers allies of the U.S. -- the “piti-yanquis” or little Yankees. He also offers instruction on 21st-century socialism, salutes Castro, whom he calls his spiritual father, and recounts events from his personal biography (which in his opinion contains and expresses the best in Venezuelan history.)
Above all, though, he governs, right there on the small screen, often accompanied by members of his Cabinet. He orders expropriations, dispatches troops and makes diplomatic decisions or public policy. A broad sector of Venezuelan society rejects this spectacle. But more than half of the voting public celebrates it with religious fervor.
When Chavez was imprisoned after the unsuccessful attempted military coup in 2002, an old working-class woman participating in a demonstration held up a handwritten sign that read, “Give me back my crazy guy!” A large part of the Venezuelan poor has continued to be grateful to Chavez for his genuine commitment to help them, which includes the “missions” (established in 2003 and run primarily with Cuban personnel) that are designed to bypass the structure of the state to rapidly provide health services, food and education.
Many of these programs have failed, but Chavez has managed to obscure these shortcomings through the near monopoly of the media, achieved when he nationalized the major public-television channels. He has also succeeded in concealing the waste of about $700 billion from the coffers of Petroleos de Venezuela SA, the state-owned oil company that was once a model of modernization, surpassing even Brazil’s Petroleo Brasileiro SA. And he has hidden the corruption and fiscal opacity among the Chavista elite.
The country is passing through an unprecedented crisis. It has the highest inflation rate on the Latin American continent, a public debt of more than $100 billion, and a scarcity of basic food supplies, electricity, cement and other essentials due to massive expropriations and the inefficiency and corruption of the new public administrators. It also suffers from rampant criminality, the worst on the Latin American continent, with a higher per-capita murder rate -- though in a much smaller population -- than even deeply troubled Mexico.
What can be said is that Chavez has deferred the bankruptcy of his country (and that of Cuba, his major ally) with the oil wealth that he has used to fund massive imports and the enrichment of the military and political caste loyal to him.
His intention has been to remain in power until 2030, the year of his 76th birthday and the 200th anniversary of Bolivar’s death. Suddenly, to the astonishment of many, Chavez has been diagnosed with and treated for cancer.
Perhaps the greatest astonishment is his own: He has always presented himself as a figure beyond the contingencies of history, sheltered by the paternal and seemingly eternal presence of Castro. The Venezuelan leader must now confront his mortality. And he isn’t just Everyman in the face of death. He is a force of nature, an archetypal macho, a “stallion” (as the British supermodel Naomi Campbell once dubbed him), the redeemer of the Venezuelan people.
This is particularly troubling because, within the Chavista universe, his destiny and that of his country are one and the same. At critical moments in his life -- his failed coup in 1992 and the 2002 attempted military overthrow -- Chavez oscillated between euphoria and depression, omnipotence and resignation.
In both of these situations, fate came down on his side within a matter of hours or days. But the time scale of his illness is necessarily long and with an uncertain outcome. It is most probable (though we don’t know what kind of cancer he has) that the treatment in Cuba will be lengthy and severe and that - - aside from the question of success or failure -- Chavez will gradually weaken. And his propagandistic strengths -- the incendiary words and marathon days -- will be progressively harder to maintain.
He won’t be able to continue to govern via Twitter and he will see himself compelled to delegate power through constitutional procedures. If this happens, no one will be able to compensate for the dwindling of his public personality, not even his elder brother, Adan, who formed him in his Marxist beliefs but who has none of the charisma. It is very likely that before the Venezuelan presidential election in December 2012, the government will still be in place, but Chavismo will have split into various tribes.
Succession of Power
Such division may lead to an eruption of violence (an endemic malady of Venezuelan history); it could also open new opportunities for a return to full democracy, now grievously weakened by Chavez’s almost total control over the legislature, finances, and electoral and judicial procedures of the Venezuelan state.
The opposition united in the Mesa de Unidad Democratica (Roundtable of Democratic Unity) party has thus far shown commendable prudence and sensitivity. It has approved Chavez’s trips to Cuba (for an operation and for chemotherapy) and expressed its wishes for the complete recovery of the president. Yet fresh candidates for the presidency have appeared, among them Maria Corina Machado, a serious, attractive and highly competent legislator whom Chavez calls “the little bourgeois.”
To win the election, the opposition factions must maintain their cohesion and present a responsible program to control financial waste, with the aim of creating an economy that combines public and private ownership and continues Chavez’s social commitment, but along the lines of the Brazilian model, not the Cuba one.
The central message of the opposition must be the reconciliation of the Venezuelan family. Nothing is more depressing than the brutal division between Chavistas and “traitors” that has been created by the regime. With or without Chavez in power, Venezuela in December 2012 can become part of an often-ignored miracle of the 21st century: the conversion of Latin America to democracy.
(Enrique Krauze, author of “Mexico: A Biography of Power” and of the soon-to-be-published “Redeemers: Ideas and Power in Latin America,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. This article was translated from the Spanish by Hank Heifetz.)
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