I normally don’t write much about Chávez or Venezuelan politics here. I find it emotionally complicated for a variety of reasons; and at the end of the day, I have no particular grounds to suppose that my take on Venezuelan politics is any more insightful than that of any moderately informed Venezuela-watcher. Nevertheless, recent developments have collided with my interest in cults of personality and related phenomena to make me want to write about the topic.
To recap: Chávez has been very sick with cancer. On December 10, he went to Havana for an operation, where he has been “battling severe complications” since. The Venezuelan government has not released any clear information about the nature of the cancer, the complications, or Chávez’ condition; rumours of all sorts are rife. What is clear is that the normally loquacious Chávez is sick enough that he is not able to address Venezuelans through any medium, or even to sign the letter that postponed his own inauguration. (Sure, he apparently signed this decree. But there are grounds to doubt that he personally signed it, not least the fact that the document was signed “in Caracas,” where he is not currently located. At any rate, the very fact that people are debating whether or not that signature constitutes a proper “proof of life,” as if we were in some kind of bad kidnapping movie, says all that needs to be said about the situation).
Yet during this time many observers have noted that public displays of loyalty and adulation for Chavez seem to have gone into overdrive, to the point where serious scholars like Margarita López Maya are speaking of the “deification” of Chávez. There are videos in heavy rotation on state TV where Chavez exclaims that he “demands absolute loyalty” because “he is not an individual, he is an entire people,” or where people provide testimonials of their gratitude for Chavez and identify themselves with him (“yo soy Chávez”; more videos here). PSUV militants issue statements declaring that they are the sons and daughters of Chávez, and that they owe everything to him. Large numbers of ordinary Chavistas publicly tweet their loyalty and concern for Chávez’ health, referring to him as “mi comandante” (my commander) and thus emphasizing their subordination and absolute loyalty. An alternative “red” tv station posts a supposed image of Chávez’ supernatural apparition during a Christmas mass (I’m not 100% sure that one is not a joke; if it is, it’s hard to tell, and many people in the comments seem to have taken it seriously, if only to express disgust with iguana.tv for making chavismo appear ridiculous). And of course the government staged an entire “inauguration” ceremony where thousands of chavistas “took the oath” for the absent Chávez, symbolically embodying him.
All of this is on top of the already omnipresent Chávez imagery in the Venezuelan public sphere, much of which had already been pushed very far into the hagiographic weeds during the recent election (check out the images of youthful Chávez for a striking example); and let’s not even mention the Chávez knickknacks and souvenirs (red berets, T-shirts, Chávez dolls, posters, etc., many created in apparent violation of a decree banning the use of Chávez’ face without authorization), all of which predate the latest surge of adoration by some time.
The displays of loyalty have been particularly abject among top leaders of the PSUV: Nicolás Maduro, VP and currently “presidente encargado,” claims to be loyal to Chávez “más allá de la vida,” even beyond death, and Elías Jaua (just appointed foreign minister), Tareck El Aissami (Aragua state governor), and Disodado Cabello (National Assembly president) have all said similar things. Their statements tend to depict Chávez as father, teacher, and leader, a man whose guidance has led them to the true values of Christianity, socialism, Bolivarianism, humanism, and concern for the people, stressing the speaker’s utter dependence on him for everything that is valuable in their identity.
What we have here, in short, seems to be a clear case of “flattery inflation,” where an already high level of public adoration is suddenly pushed into the stratosphere. (Indeed, the cult of Chávez seems to have recently displaced a bit the cult of Bolívar that has otherwise been the hallmark of the last 14 years). Moreover, all of this is occurring in the absence of the man and, most interestingly for our purposes, in a relatively open public arena, where there is plenty of social support for people who dislike Chávez and want to express their views. (Remember, about 45% of Venezuelans voted against him in the last presidential election, and perhaps half of them are committed anti-chavistas who cannot stand him; the love Chávez awakens in some has its counterpart in the visceral hatred he produces in others). There may be mild social pressure to praise Chávez in some contexts (I’ve heard stories along those lines, though the pressure to praise only appears to be significant whenever you want to enjoy the perquisites of power or receive economic benefits from the government, e.g., if you are applying for a government job; and there is some limited evidence linking overt opposition to Chávez with loses of benefits and opportunities in the recent past), but there is really nothing in Venezuela that is comparable to the kind of social pressure people experienced in China during the cultural revolution to signal their loyalty to Mao, or still experience in North Korea to praise the Kims. Most “grassroots” praise of Chávez seems sincere, and can even coexist with criticism of his government. So what is going on here?
López Maya takes a stab at the problem by using that rickety Weberian warhorse, legitimacy, which I’ve criticized a number of times: the cult has been turned up to 11 in order to legitimate Maduro’s leadership. I’m not trying to pick on López Maya here; there is nothing especially wrong with saying, in the context of a short newspaper interview, that the recent surge of adulation aims to “legitimate” (“secure” or “cement” might be equally appropriate) Maduro’s shaky grasp on power (especially since the opposition disputes the legal basis for his authority), but it hardly explains much. After all, it’s not as if turning up the level of adulation can change the minds of most anti-chavistas; and it’s not even very plausible to argue that all the hagiographic statements about Chávez by top leaders can persuade the uncommitted that Maduro really is the genuine leader of the country. Moreover, though the government has clearly orchestrated some of the increased displays of loyalty (through the use of state media to broadcast images of people expressing their identity with Chávez, for example), others are definitely coming “from below,” even if they are responding to cues provided by government officials and PSUV leaders.
Here’s how I think one might produce a more complete explanation. (General disclaimer: I am far from Venezuela, have no special insider knowledge of anything, and my sources are likely biased and incomplete, so take everything I say here with large dollops of salt). Let’s start with the top chavistas: why might people like Maduro or Jaua be going to such lengths to show their complete devotion to the absent Chávez? Putting aside character-based explanations – e.g., that they are spineless sycophants, or that they are genuinely passionate about Chávez, however much these things may be true– the main driver of flattery inflation at the top of the PSUV right now seems to be precisely that the absence of Chávez makes it difficult for committed militants to evaluate the credibility of loyalty signals.
Most observers have noted a division – the extent and nature of which is a matter of some controversy – between what we might call the radical and the not so radical wings of Chavismo (left and right chavismo? ), conventionally associated with VP Maduro and National Assembly president Cabello, respectively. With Chávez incapacitated (and likely soon dead, given the probable nature of his illness), a struggle is underway to define the future of the chavista movement and the aims of the “revolution.” Under the circumstances, no top leader of the PSUV can afford to be seen as anything less than abjectly devoted to Chávez; anything less would instantly destroy their credibility with those who matter for their political future (not the median voter). This sort of competition for the loyalty of committed Chavistas is likely to lead to an escalation of displays of loyalty in the absence of an umpire – Chávez – who can credibly arbitrate between potentially disparate goals and visions of socialism or revolution. (We do not need to assume cynicism on the part of anybody here, though of course we should not categorically rule it out either; there is much corruption at the top of the PSUV). Moreover, it is precisely those who are most formally powerful – e.g. Maduro – who have the most to gain from encouraging the adulation of Chávez; because they control the formal levers of power, they are in the best position to punish even minor deviations from prescribed orthodoxy. (Maduro is thus kind of in the Lin Biao position here). The key here is that the signals are meant primarily not for the median, uncommitted voter, but for committed chavistas, who may not agree on everything but agree on the immense importance of Chávez for the movement.
But why is Chávez so important to the movement? (One could raise the more general question: why do single leaders seem to become so important for self-consciously egalitarian, socialist movements?). The usual explanation is that Chávez is a highly charismatic leader; but if charisma is understood as some kind of intrinsic property of Chávez, this again explains nothing. Chávez is charismatic not because he has some magic power that makes people love him – it is always worth remembering that a significant proportion of Venezuelans don’t like him much at all, present company included – but because he has been particularly skillful at using “interaction rituals” that draw on deeply rooted Venezuelan cultural narratives to create and fashion new identities that resonate with socially marginalized groups. He is, above all, a master weaver of stories that resonate broadly with many (but not all!) people. (What is an identity but a role one plays in a grander narrative? To create an identity one only needs the right sort of story). Or rather, the charisma of Chávez is a kind of magic (take it from the expert on the subject!), understood as the skill to manipulate cultural symbols to produce new identities and collective action; and it depends on ritual, theatre, and in general the ability to command attention and tune in to emotion.
But now that he is absent, these identities are threatened; and we might expect people who feel “chavista” to expend more energy re-asserting their identity in these circumstances, especially in response to cues coming from Chávez’ top followers. Part of Chávez’ genius has been his ability to instill a sense of permanent threat in his followers: to be a chavista is to feel like an underdog, under attack by the combined forces of international capital, despite the fact that the government controls enormous oil resources and nowadays exercises effective hegemony over the media; with Chávez gone, the sense of threat is even greater. We might summarize this simply by saying that identity polarization leads to inflationary demands on loyalty signalling; and identity is at this time highly polarized in Venezuela.
[Update, 19 January - fixed minor typos]
[Update, 19 January - fixed minor typos]