Why Venezuela Needs an Exorcism
Three years after his death, Hugo Chávez continues to haunt the country he led into ruin.
On December 8, 2012, an uncharacteristically subdued Hugo Chávez appeared on Venezuelan television to announce that his mysterious unspecified cancer had returned and that he was headed for Cuba to be treated. Having first been diagnosed the previous year, Chávez had declared himself cancer-free during the lead-up to his successful 2012 reelection campaign. Pausing during his address to kiss a small crucifix tucked away in his shirt pocket, the president also discussed -- for the first time in his fourteen years in power -- the possibility of a Venezuela without him. He asked the people to support Nicolás Maduro, his recently appointed vice president, should he be incapacitated.
On December 8, 2012, an uncharacteristically subdued Hugo Chávez appeared on Venezuelan television to announce that his mysterious unspecified cancer had returned and that he was headed for Cuba to be treated. Having first been diagnosed the previous year, Chávez had declared himself cancer-free during the lead-up to his successful 2012 reelection campaign. Pausing during his address to kiss a small crucifix tucked away in his shirt pocket, the president also discussed — for the first time in his fourteen years in power — the possibility of a Venezuela without him. He asked the people to support Nicolás Maduro, his recently appointed vice president, should he be incapacitated.
It was not until March 5, 2013 that a shaken Maduro, his voice cracking, announced the president’s death. During the surreal three months in between, Chávez essentially became “Schrödinger’s president,” simultaneously assumed to be both alive and dead while the regime refused to divulge any credible updates on his status. According to subsequent statements from a high-ranking regime defector, he actually died as early as December 30, 2012. And while the government claimed he was alive throughout, and even passed along little messages from him, such interactions were no better documented than were subsequent claims by Maduro to have spoken with Chávez’s ghost in the form of a bird.
But that’s not to say that the ghost isn’t relevant. Today, just over three years into his political afterlife, the ghost of Hugo Chávez is as inescapable as el Comandante himself was in life. To his remaining supporters, he goes by many names: “the Giant,” “the Eternal One,” “Redeemer of the Poor,” and even “Galactic Commander.” Meanwhile, among his opponents, many prefer to invoke him only indirectly as el disfunto, “the deceased,” as if by breathing his name they might risk his return.
Regardless of how Venezuelans speak of him, however, they cannot help but see him everywhere. Images of the late president, or sometimes of his signature or his disembodied eyes, are ubiquitous in Caracas, Venezuela’s capital. And he’s not always alone. In colorful murals he can often be found hanging out with a veritable A-list of revolutionaries, including Che Guevara, Karl Marx, Simon Bolívar, and Jesus Christ. Other times, he’ll be slumming it with Maduro, the revolutionary schmendrick who succeeded him and who has had to resign himself to less flattering nicknames.
This quasi-religious veneration of Chávez by his comrades is not known for its subtlety. In 2014, the government pushed an “Our Chávez” reboot of the Catholic “Our Father” prayer, which included supplications to “lead us not into the temptation of capitalism and deliver us from the oligarchy,” thereby reaching new heights of pathos.
The myriad questions still surrounding Chávez’s death, the specific cause and date of which remain unknown, lend themselves to any number of conspiracy theories suggesting that he was actually killed by the CIA, or Mossad, or oligarchs, or Colombians (circle one or more). When harnessed well, such rhetoric can be vital to propagating the siege mentality that is the main remaining source of legitimacy for the socialist regime Chávez built, given the unmistakable decline in national living standards during the era of his hapless successor.
And the state-peddled cult is hardly the only game in town. While the Catholic establishment was disinclined to add “Our Chávez” to the official liturgy, various local religions have incorporated his political cult of personality. To worshipers of Maria Lionza, a bare-breasted, tapir-riding indigenous goddess said to reside on the remote mountain of Sorte deep in the Venezuelan hinterland, he has become a mainstay. Small busts of Chávez adorn makeshift altars from Sorte all the way to Caracas, and he shares a spot in the pantheon with independence icon Simon Bolívar, indigenous chief Guaicaipuro, and freed slave hero Pedro Camejo.
The religion of Santeria — a strain of afro-Caribbean occultism, primarily imported from Cuba, that blends animal sacrifice with Catholic imagery — has also been welcoming. Many of its babalawo priests went to great lengths to try to magically forestall Chávez’s passing, and physical death has since done little to weaken his popularity with them since. Always something of a pantheist, Chávez himself seems to have anticipated this eventuality: “I’ve gone to the synagogue to pray, just as I have prayed with Muslims, with believers in Maria Lionza, and with the black men and women who howl at the moon,” he once said. “Can you imagine it? Me, astride the haunch of that tapir, hugging Maria Lionza’s waist?” I think I can.
Of course, for the truly committed Chávez fans — unsatisfied with simply waxing nostalgic for El Comandante, admiring his image, or spilling fresh goats’ blood in his honor — nothing can replace actual proximity to his remains. Atop a shanty-covered hill, directly across from the balcony in the presidential palace from which Chávez loved to address his supporters, is El Cuartel de La Montaña, the military barracks and museum that played a crucial role in his failed 1992 coup attempt. Today it has been converted into a mausoleum, where visitors can view a wide array of Chávez-themed memorabilia, watch film reels, and pay their proper respects to his remains.
The government had initially announced plans to embalm Chávez, so as to leave him on permanent display. Unfortunately — and accounts of this vary depending on who one asks — the mummification process was either botched or else started too late, so the idea of a crystal casket was dropped for a more suitably opaque marble one. The remains therein are officially described as “partially preserved.”
Of course, even partial preservation sounds pretty good compared to what the rest of the country has been through since Chávez’s passing. After three years of Maduro mismanaging Venezuela’s economy back into the dark ages, the country has become a nation of thirty million scavengers, desperately seeking rare food and medicines, and increasingly without electricity or running water. As a result, Maduro’s government is increasingly reliant on the Chávez legacy as a justification for remaining at the helm. And, like any pre-industrial regime worth its salt, it knows that when the peasants are restless, a little medieval pageantry can perhaps set them right. Despite the country’s collapsed economy, festivities are in the works to commemorate March 5, the official day of his passing.
Perhaps such events will remind the ungrateful population of the Eternal One’s dying wish that his socialist revolution continue on. At the very least, it can remind Venezuelans of Chávez’s decade long petro-party, taking their minds off the extended hangover of the Maduro years. In Chávez’s tomb at least, the lights remain on and the revelry continues.
Happy Cinco de Marzo, everyone.
In the photo, a man walks by a wall with a mural painting depicting the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in Caracas on June 10, 2014.
Photo credit: LEO RAMIREZ/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.
More from Foreign Policy
Saudi-Iranian Détente Is a Wake-Up Call for America
The peace plan is a big deal—and it’s no accident that China brokered it.
The U.S.-Israel Relationship No Longer Makes Sense
If Israel and its supporters want the country to continue receiving U.S. largesse, they will need to come up with a new narrative.
Putin Is Trapped in the Sunk-Cost Fallacy of War
Moscow is grasping for meaning in a meaningless invasion.
How China’s Saudi-Iran Deal Can Serve U.S. Interests
And why there’s less to Beijing’s diplomatic breakthrough than meets the eye.