EspañolChavismo went from being a political movement in the late 1990s to a form of cult in the 2010s. When Hugo Chávez died two years ago, the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) launched a widespread campaign to erect him as a sacred figure. Today, some Venezuelans pray to Chávez and ask him to perform miracles, as they would with Catholic saints.
But is this following a groundswell of genuine belief or just another populist political prop?
The epicenter of religious worship to the late president lies in Caracas, at the Catholic parish “January 23.” In a neighborhood populated by regime supporters, where Chávez’s remains allegedly rest, there is a sanctuary for Saint Hugo Chávez.
A plaster statue with a red military cap sits on the altar. The inscription reads: “You were, are, and will always be our giant in eternity. We will love you forever.” Flowers and a couple of posters — one of them an image of Saint Paul’s Nazarene — always surround the pedestal, next to a metal shelf to light candles.
Just days after Chávez’s death was announced in 2013, one could find similar statues in Caracas’s several esoteric shops. In Mercado Libre, a popular website to trade unregulated goods, you can still buy a Chávez resin sculpture bathed in bronze for 180,000 Bs. (US$680, around 32 months of the minimum wage.)
For the Maduro administration, Chávez is the holy father from which they inherited power, as if Venezuela were a divine monarchy. For those who followed him while he was alive and still worship him dead, the military officer from Barinas was nothing short of the country’s savior, the forefather of the “New Man” and the leader who made socialism possible in Venezuela.
Witnessing this collectivist transformation of Venezuelan society sent shivers down her spine, claims social psychologist Colette Capriles: “It’s the idea that society can reboot with a new human race. But the interesting point is not whether Chavismo can become a [religious] doctrine or a new race, rather for how long can this continue?”
Capriles warns that worship of Chávez as some sort of high priest may have worked during his administration, but after his passing away the effect on the followers has started to wane. Chávez no longer lives.
The Fabricated Saint
But the show had to go on. Countless images of Chávez still adorn fences and billboards of Venezuela’s main highways. The central government painted his signature, known as the “pig tail,” on all buildings constructed by the housing program Misión Vivienda, and on the walls of many other state institutions. It’s almost as if his essence lives in everything rubber-stamped with his signature.
After the announcement of Chávez’s death, a campaign launched as part of Nicolás Maduro’s presidential bid invited people to go to the various ministries’ offices around the country and have the “pig tail” tattooed anywhere on their bodies, for free.
“Chávez thus became the big caretaker and symbol of this new religion,” explains Capriles. “The idea was that Chavismo‘s destiny was to cease being a political movement and evolve into some sort of religion, a cult, because all that Chavismo was obsessed with amounted to the creation of a personal identity. They expected people to believe that being Chavista was something distinct from being Venezuelan, which, by the way, is a quite a fascist trait.”
“They have succeeded in capitalizing on Chávez’s image and blowing the small achievements of his administration out of proportion,” Acosta says. “When Maduro ran for president, Chávez became a campaign icon, and there were even posters without Maduro; they just put on them ‘Maduro is Chávez’ to instill and fixate that association among their supporters.”
Contrary to popular belief, “It’s the government that builds chapels, monuments, figures, flannels, and that sort of thing — not the people. They are worried about real-life problems, not looking to worship some man who’s already dead.” They sponsor worship, she says, to invoke sympathy and remain in power.
In fact, the controversial “Chávez Prayer” that mimicked the key biblical refrain, appeared first during the PSUV congress of September 2014.
The Venezuelan Catholic Church was quick to denounce the prayer then, as well as the country’s main Evangelical organization, calling it an “unfortunate sacrilege,” the “manipulation of elements of the Christian faith to generate political-religious propaganda.”
Colette Capriles traces the roots of theological and religious elements of Chavista discourse to well before the death of the populist leader. She recalls his return to the presidency after the failed April 2002 coup d’état. Chávez appeared in public with a crucifix in his hand: “He had a very powerful intuition of how constructing the events of April 11-13 as a metaphor or discourse associated with the resurrection of Christ.”
The Legend: All the Government Has Left
On February 27 of this year, the pro-government newspaper Últimas Noticias began selling a book to further the mythical agenda: Faces and Portraits of a Leader: Hugo Chávez, the Memory of a People. It contains photographs and tales of the Venezuelan ex-president and costs 100 Bs. — less than 50 US cents.
Such propaganda tools remain plentiful in Chavista libraries and state institutions. The ruling party narrative tries to keep Hugo Chávez as the sacred commander whom only a disease could defeat (only once in 14 electoral races did he lose to the Venezuelan opposition).
The promotion of this legend has been heaviest since December 8, 2012, when Chávez announced his departure to Cuba for medical treatment. That would be the last time the country would hear him speak publicly.
After two months of suspicion, vague medical reports, and leaked information, we saw Chávez again. On February 15, 2013, the government released photos of a swollen and run-down Chávez surrounded by his daughters Rosa Virginia and María Gabriela.
Early on February 18, he allegedly entered Carlos Arvelo Military Hospital in Caracas. No one saw him, except for a nurse interviewed by state media who claimed the former president had arrived on foot, without any medical assistance. The version was never corroborated by anybody else.
Then 15 days passed until government officials informed the country that Chávez had died on March 5 at 4:40 pm.
Two years later, and Chavista fundamentalism is on the decline, but the government keeps using and invoking the deceased leader to point to a political and ideological legacy. Be that as it may, for many PSUV supporters, Chávez and his era remain the yardstick by which to gauge the performance of Maduro’s administration. For the opposition, Chávez is the man responsible for the widespread crisis facing Venezuela.
Elisa Vásquez contributed to this article. Translated by Daniel Duarte. Edited by Fergus Hodgson.