by Niv Bavarsky
The Missing President
By ALBERTO BARRERA TYSZKA and CRISTINA MARCANO
Published: January 22, 2013
ON Jan. 10, while Hugo Chávez lay in a hospital bed in Havana, he was symbolically sworn in as Venezuela’s new president in a ceremony here. The crowd that attended his virtual inauguration was moved to tears by a recording of Mr. Chávez’s singing the national anthem. The country is experiencing the very odd circumstance of being both with and without its leader; he is not here, but his voice endures.
From the intensive care unit, the president “continues to perform his duties”; he gives orders and sends kisses to children. This is what his vice president says. According to the Supreme Court, the Congress cannot consider him absent, for no matter how ill he is, only Mr. Chávez himself has the authority to declare himself absent. The opposition is demanding a “fe de vida” — proof that he is still alive, as if he were a kidnapping victim. Day after day, on the street, on Twitter, our president dies and comes back to life. But this is not a magical realist novel.
After 14 years as president, Mr. Chávez controls all public powers: the legislative body, the Supreme Court, the public prosecutor’s office, to say nothing of the oil industry. Of all those who have held office since the end of the military dictatorship in 1958, none has concentrated power quite as Mr. Chávez has.
From the moment he won his first election, he knew that he had not made it to the presidency in order to run a sound government. He had come to change the course of history. In the name of the dispossessed, he revived the ghost of the South American military caudillo, creating a new version of that traditional strongman. He sings ranchera songs on Sunday and negotiates with Iran on Monday. He is a child of the telenovela who invokes the old-fashioned left. As president he deftly combines power with melodrama.
He astutely took advantage of the failure of neoliberalism and the traditional elites, as well as the antipolitical climate at the time, promising to democratize the country’s oil income and eliminate deep social inequalities. And riding the wave of an oil boom, he secured the loyalty of the poor.
But his “21st century socialism” is a populist, patronage-oriented model that depends less on ideology than it does on the price of a barrel of crude. He has managed to revive the illusion of a sustainable society that distributes rather than creates wealth. And thanks to this illusion, he has been able to maintain his ironclad grip on power.
Last October’s elections gave him the chance to complete, “democratically,” 20 years as president. “Veinte años no es nada,” he said — a line from a famous tango song meaning “20 years is nothing.” More than eight million voters seemed to agree with him; probably around the number of people who have benefited from his administration’s social programs, which are called, rather religiously, “missions.” (Though the government says the number is much higher.)
Venezuelans today are less poor than they once were. But they are also far more dependent on the state, and more susceptible to a propaganda machine that attributes this “miracle” to Mr. Chávez. Over the past decade, his government has invested around $400 billion in social spending, an oil-infused luxury that few countries in the region have ever been able to indulge in.
There is one element of the Chávez leadership, however, that is no different from any of Latin America’s other personality-driven authoritarian regimes: its messianic nature. “With Chávez, everything; without Chávez, nothing,” is the government’s official slogan. “We are all Chávez” is its battle cry and love song. Over time, the state has built a powerful industry around the cult of personality. Few Venezuelans will ever forget the moment when Mr. Chávez, in a televised event at a church, implored Jesus Christ for more days on earth. Now, following an uncertain convalescence in Cuba that is being closely monitored by the Castro brothers, the president of Venezuela is already a myth on his way to consecration.
When he does go, many will feel orphaned. He fashioned himself into the axis around which the life of the country revolved, and his unique brand of authority will, without his physical presence, be very difficult to maintain. His absence will create a void in a society that was forced to divide and organize itself in two blocks: for or against Chávez. The propaganda machine that has turned Mr. Chávez into a religious talisman will not necessarily serve to legitimize the many pretenders, including his chosen successor, Vice President Nicolás Maduro, who are waiting to inherit his charismatic legacy.
That legacy, of course, is more than pure messianic zeal. Mr. Chávez will leave behind a country plagued with problems. With deep political divisions. With an appalling level of violence, including around 21,000 homicides last year. With the wild economic distortions that come from having some of the highest inflation on the continent and the cheapest gasoline on the planet. With dwindling productivity, an overvalued currency and an enormous foreign debt load. With unchecked public spending, and still one great dream that has yet to be fulfilled: the illusion of eliminating poverty forever.
To this end, absence might be just what Hugo Chávez needs to save him from his own failure. Myths survive only when they rise above the miseries of reality.