The Slow Death of Chavismo

The Venezuelan president inherited a vast empire of propaganda from his charismatic predecessor. Here’s how he lost it.

GettyImages-499445416 crop

Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, seems to be stumbling towards electoral defeat in the country’s legislative elections today, potentially triggering a long goodbye for the country’s 17-year-old socialist revolution. Polls show that, while Venezuelans may differ somewhat when assigning blame for their country’s ongoing economic collapse, discontent is nearly universal and only about 20 to 25 percent approve of the president himself. As the hand-picked successor of Hugo Chávez, the country’s longstanding former leader, Maduro inherited one of the most innovative and successful propaganda models in the world, developed by Chávez between 1998 and 2002. Why hasn’t Maduro been able to use it?

Hugo Chávez’s 14-year stint at the helm of Venezuela’s revolutionary government produced many uncertainties for its population: a new constitution, radical reforms, soaring inflation, and a veritable boom in street crime and urban violence, to name but a few. But for most of that time, one thing was certain. Every Sunday, viewers could watch Chávez’s television talk-show Aló Presidente, an eclectic mix of variety show, televangelical preaching, real-time government, and musical extravaganza. Chávez used his show, which was broadcast on the state television channel, to share his views on matters ranging from baseball to geopolitics, answer phone calls from the populace, share personal anecdotes, or spout his trademark ideological pedagogy, liberally peppered with outbursts of song.

On the show, Chávez would expropriate businesses, renounce Venezuela’s membership in international associations, and expel ambassadors; he might even indulge in mobilizing troops to the Colombian border or announce modifications to the flag, currency, and other national symbols. For many Venezuelans, Aló Presidente represented a window into national events and decisions, taking place in real time — a reality show which affected the lives of its viewers. Chávez also used the show to reward his supporters with gifts and patronage with the dramatic beneficence of a Caesar in a coliseum — deciding, if not matters of life and death, then at least the destinies of individual citizens, by doling out everything from scholarships and jobs to cooking supplies, all to thunderous applause.

For Venezuelans, Aló Presidente became a ready reminder of the benefits of working with the regime — and Chávez’s largesse contrasted with threats, invectives, and even arrest orders against those who broke rank. When ministers were regularly chastised, fired, and replaced on air, viewers received a clear message: the government’s many failures were due to poor execution of Chávez’s otherwise infallible plans by incompetent minions. He claimed, for example, that an important bridge had been felled by El Niño (not lack of maintenance); that periods of scarcity were the fault of hoarders or speculators (not economic mismanagement); and that the lights went out in several cities because an iguana had somehow got loose in the electrical mainframe. Conspiratorial scare tactics likewise abounded: shadowy opposition intrigues were alleged; CIA cabals brandished “cancer injections” and “earthquake rays”; Coke Zero (but not other Coca-Cola products) was accused of being poisonous. There were even cautionary tales such as the story of a once-thriving civilization on Mars brought low by the adoption of capitalism.

Ironically, while excoriating capitalism, Chávez’s state media empire learned to wield its best-known commercial and marketing tricks in pushing its main product: Chávez himself. Foreign heads of state and left-leaning international celebrities, such as Naomi Campbell, Danny Glover, and Sean Penn, would appear on the show, lending their star power to the Chávez brand of permanent revolution.

Aló Presidente represented the perfect populist vehicle: it kept Chávez in the public eye, helped define his political agenda, and drove the media conversation during any given week. When the Sunday afternoon format proved too limiting, Chávez became heavily reliant on cadenas nacionales, a type of broadcast permitted under Venezuelan law that gives presidents a constitutional prerogative to seize airtime on every radio and TV station for use in emergencies, or to broadcast major events such as the Venezuelan equivalent of the United States’ yearly State of the Union speech. Undeterred by convention, Chávez began serially invoking the law to deliver multi-hour speeches, meticulously timed to moments when opposition leaders were speaking elsewhere.

According to one estimate, Chávez resorted to 2,000 cadenas during his first 11 years as president, averaging one every two days. From late 1999 onwards, Chávez averaged nearly 40 hours of personal media time a week.

By the time the final episode of Aló Presidente was transmitted from Chávez’s home state of Barinas on Jan. 29, 2012, the show had, according to government figures, logged nearly 657 hours of airtime over 14 years, averaging a robust four to five percent of national television viewership for much of its existence and sporadically spiking to up to three times that amount.

Since Chávez’s death, attempts by others to fill the void have produced consistently underwhelming results. Chávez’s handpicked presidential successor, Nicolás Maduro, his wife, National Assembly chief Diosdado Cabello, and other major regime players have tried to take up the mantle with their own shows in similar formats. The armed forces, the socialist colectivos, and various community groups also appear in official media spots. But despite similarities in content, the glut of budget Aló Presidentes have invariably failed to recreate the magic — not one of them has topped even one percent of the national audience. Maduro’s own show has seemed to take a back seat to that of Cabello, whose penchant for airing secretly taped private conversations to humiliate or threaten his enemies at least makes for dramatic television.

For the perennially gaffe-prone and unpopular Maduro, a system designed to run on the personal dynamism of Chávez himself has made for an awkward fit. Chávez was quick to sideline potential rivals, and Maduro’s innocuousness and unwavering loyalty allowed him to navigate those treacherous waters successfully enough to be anointed successor. But since taking over the presidency, these assets have become liabilities. In a system tailored to channel Chávez’s larger-than-life persona, his absence is all the more palpable. As Venezuela approached this weekend’s electoral contest, the regime has striven to remind disaffected voters of that connection however they can. On Dec. 3, Maria Gabriella Chávez, the former president’s favorite daughter, published an open letter to her countrymen beseeching them to defend the revolution of “My Father, the brother of all, Our Chávez,” referencing a government-promoted rewrite of the Catholic “Our Father” prayer, featuring Chávez, that made the rounds last year.

In addition to his lack of Chavez-like charisma, Maduro’s lack of television success can perhaps be explained by his tweaking of the bombastic former leader’s grand narrative for Venezuela. The message of chavismo is similar in many respects to that of other revolutionary authoritarian Marxist ideologies: history is reinterpreted as a grand redemptive narrative of revolution, repackaged as a set of crucial dates and figures which point to the inevitable (and thus legitimate) status quo. The official mythology views Venezuelan independence hero Simón Bolívar, who fought bravely for independence, social equality, and freedom only to be cynically betrayed by capitalist elites, as a direct precursor of Hugo Chávez. Subsequent Venezuelan history is simplified into two centuries under the brutal yoke of oligarchs and foreigners until the arrival of Hugo Chávez on the political scene.

The worldview that results is rigidly dualistic, almost Manichean; and the Venezuelan government’s rhetoric is heavily reliant on diametrically opposed sets of loaded terms. On the side of good are el pueblo (the people), la patria (the homeland), socialism, revolution, the global left, liberty, sovereignty, Latin America. Representing evil are imperialists, the United States, oligarchs, the CIA, international elites, ultra-rightists, fascists, and Zionists — words that can be used interchangeably to denote any enemy that criticizes or meddles in Venezuelan government affairs.

While Maduro’s administration still relies on a version of Chávez’s grand narrative, the tone has changed, becoming less hopeful and more paranoid. Machiavelli once advised his prince to rule by either love or fear (famously recommending the latter, as it could be more easily controlled); Maduro has opted for fear. According to a tally by Colombia’s NTN24 network in February, Maduro had at that point claimed to have foiled at least 16 coup attempts, and by my count there have been at least five more since then. He regularly announces imminent threats of invasion and sabotage from a range of intractable enemies. To hammer home the message, Maduro has taken to paranoid theatrics such as showing up at the April 2015 Summit of the Americas in Panama with an obvious show of security personnel, a body double, and — at least seemingly — a bulletproof vest.

The resulting siege mentality makes it easier for the government to pass the buck for the regime’s failures in crime prevention and the economy, or else to justify increasingly authoritarian social controls. Since Chávez’s death, media controls have become more powerful, if at times less direct. Despite his socialist rhetoric, Maduro has found that the best way to control the independent media is to use the invisible hand of capitalism. The free market was used as a cudgel: the government simply had its friends buy up the media. The result has been an increasingly desolate media landscape, and with no competition, the pro-government media, too, has lost dynamism.

Which is not to say Maduro himself can’t be dramatic. Last month an uncharacteristically grave-faced Maduro, incongruously garbed in a festive crimson Adidas tracksuit, took to the government airwaves and warned potential detractors that they had “best pray” for a government victory lest the revolution be forced to “take it to the streets.” Ominous words, but they lost much in the telling.

Today Venezuelans head to the polls, and they will likely hand the socialist candidates their first defeat in a national election. The government may yet minimize the impact of that loss through institutional control of the national judiciary and electoral council — but the socialists’ defeat will be a public rejection of Maduro’s vision. Chávez was a charismatic and positive figure, a huckster who conjured fantastical futures in exchange for electoral support. In contrast, Maduro has been more like a low-level thug, warning of doom for Venezuela should voters abandon him. The message is increasingly unwelcome. Having once been promised and denied a beautiful future, Venezuelans will not stand for being threatened. The people could suffer the salesman, less so the racketeer.

This article is adapted from an essay written for the Legatum Institute’s “Beyond Propaganda” series.

In the photo, electoral graffiti depicts Hugo Chávez, Simón Bolívar, and Nicolás Maduro in the Petare shantytown in Caracas on Dec. 1, 2015.

Photo credit: FEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images

Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez teaches on Latin America at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management and is a weekly columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Nacional. His Twitter handle is @Dlansberg.