By Roberto Lahoud
Three years ago the Venezuelan Socialist Party‘s delegate María Estella Uribe read this prayer to his fellow partisans:
Our Chávez, Who art in heaven,
in seas, in lands, and in us, the delegates,
hallowed be thy name, thy legacy come,
to take it to the people of here and there.
Give us this day, your daily light,
for it to guide us every day.
And lead us not into temptation of capitalism but deliver us
from oligarchy’s evil, and the crime of smuggling,
for ours are the homeland, the peace, and the life,
forever and ever, Amen.
It was a tribute of love for the father of the Venezuelan Bolivarian Revolution, a prayer for a dead man, and part of the continuing mythology which grows as the country flounders. And the Chavez love culture was just beginning.
In Venezuela you can now literally see Chavez’s eyes, like Big Brother’s eyes, everywhere – on buildings and huge billboards, just with the shape of his eyes drawn along with his famous signature, “Chávez vive” –Chávez lives– or “Chávez no murió, se multiplicó.” Sometimes it is scrawled in graffiti: Chávez didn’t die, he multiplied.
The images started to appear during the surge of populism that carried Chavist Nicolás Maduro to the presidency. Before succumbing to cancer, Chavez had told supporters that in the event of his death they should vote for Maduro.
But after cancer defeated him, Chavez’ image and mythology metastasized, even as the economy turned to ruin. The country today has 750% inflation, some the world’s worst criminal violence, and has turned from a land of immigrants to emigrants.
Meanwhile, Chávez’s love culture not only flourished, but ironically, commercialized into catchy pop songs, action figures and clothes. Every single Venezuelan trademarked product you can imagine has some Chávez in it. He is the new Ché Guevara, the most sold socialist ever. He even has a lot of songs that people sing and, let me tell you, they are very catchy.
Love for Chávez can be seen not only in the streets and conversations of Venezuela, but also across Latin America and many other countries around the world. The popular image outside the country is that of a hero, a social justice warrior who brought great ideas to our people.
But this does not accurately reflect how how many Venezuelans now feel, and only aggravates those who have a more complex view. Chavez icons have been used for so long, so often, by so many, that the discordance between fact and myth is also a new cultural norm. The results of actual policies and rampant corruption have drowned Venezuelan citizens economically. Today the icon also stands for our disillusionment and cynicism.
Chávism has created the country’s deepest and most personal divisions, even more so than the economic gap between rich and poor. Couples have separated and even divorced over disagreement about Chávez’ ideals.
Opposition leaders use Chávez’ image in order to encourage “revolutionary” Chavistas to join their ranks. It is now common for political representatives from both sides to do what we call “saltar la talanquera” or jump the fence, which means going from one political side to the other without giving too much of a notice to one’s followers.
As a Venezuelan and not a Chavez fan, I have seen friends become Chavistas overnight because they’re receiving part of the “government’s booty.” For me this is personal (see a previous column on why I have chosen to emigrate).
For example, let’s suppose we have a friend called Carlos.
Carlos has always been part of riots and used his social media to say how much he despised Chávez, Maduro and all of the government’s high officers. Suddenly Carlos, who used to take the metro and a bus to get home, started to drive a Chinese car with a brand we have never seen before, but we can see the brand name is Chery. Quite a cute car. We ask Carlos where he got his car and he seems a little bit uncomfortable with the question, but he says he got it from his boss at his new job.
“That’s wonderful, Carlos.” We congratulate him and ask him why didn’t he tell us he got a job. He makes us leave his car and tells us to f*ck off. Quite a rude way to answer. We think that Carlos has a problem, but we’re still happy because he got a job and a car. None of us has a car. Then we start to see a lot of those Chinese cars in the streets and some of them have a sticker with Chávez’s eyes. Could it be?
Then we see Carlos tweeting from his new iPhone that he loves Chávez and the revolution of love, and we know exactly where Carlos got himself a job: With the state.
I have also seen friends become part of the opposition, disaffected by the results of Maduro’s policies. Some even go further to blame Chávez. At least that’s something we can thank Maduro for.
But meanwhile, atop the Caracas’ community of 23 de Enero is a huge monument called “Cuartel de la Montaña” or The Mountain Headquarters, which serves as a Military History Museum, and has a permanent exhibition of Chávez’s coffin, where he is constantly visited by people who come to pay their respects to their eternal commander.
So if you ask me if Chávez died or not, I’ll tell you he lives on … in our hunger, our poverty, and our ignorance. He has has spread like cancer and is everywhere, like Perón, Guevara, Castro and all of those “revolutionary martyrs” that Latin Americans still venerate.
But for the bitter half of a divided country, he is the international symbol of the perils of populism, which so often begins with a democratically elected outsider claiming to be a champion of the people, but who then slides into authoritarianism and corruption.
It is an old story, less heroic and one not as easy to tell.