AFTER HUGO: CULT OF PERSONALITY IN VENEZUELA

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Nicolás Maduro is now the president of Venezuela after defeating Henrique Capriles in Sunday’s presidential election.

An extremely close win by Maduro in this special election – currently not accepted and being contested by Capriles – will allow him to complete the six year term originally won by Hugo Chavez.

Campaigning heavily on the legacy of Chavez and actively  perpetuating the cult of personality that Chavez himself cultivated, it will be interesting to see if he can now establish his own leadership in a legitimate manner in a clearly divided Venezuelan electorate.

Maduro’s reliance on the memory of Chavez in campaigning for his own election is encapsulated in a rather curious and much mocked event.

Just prior to going to the polls Maduro spoke of a strong spiritual experience in which he was alone in a small wooden chapel.  According to Maduro, whilst he was seated a ‘little birdie’ (pajaro chiquitico) flew into the chapel, circled three times above his head and whistled.  Maduro whistled back at the bird, -as you do- then the bird looked at him strangely and exited.  Maduro went on to say that through this bird he felt the spirit of Chavez giving him his blessing and willing him to go forth to victory.

As you could probably guess this has spawned a number of YouTube parodies.

Walking the streets of Caracas in 2010 I was astounded by the ubiquity of Chavez’s image on billboards, walls and other public spaces.  Images of an avuncular – looking Hugo and his hero, independence leader Simón Bolívar are around every corner.

The contrast with Cuba, Venezuela’s closest ally, in this respect is interesting.  While there is a lot of highly visible Communist party propaganda espousing the Cuban communist manifesto Fidel Castro himself is not always the key focus as you might expect. Indeed Orwellian type messages such as ‘Men die.  The Party is immortal.‘ show that the communist party aims to convey the message that the revolution is not dependent on one man.  Much public adulation and idolization concentrates on those who fell in the earlier days of the revolution.  The ‘plaza de la revolución’ in Havana, for example, is adorned by huge images of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos.

The television program ‘Aló Presidente’ which ran for 378 episodes during Chavez’s presidency is another clear indicator to the cult of personality that was built up aroundthe former president.  The show on Venezuelan state television provided Chavez a platform to directly present his ideology and manifesto to those who chose to tune in.

Furthermore the prevalence of tattoos of ‘el comandante’ adorning the bodies of loyal chavistas also points to the ever growing cult of personality surrounding the deceased leader.

Clearly the cult is growing.  So, what next for Venezuela?

Now that Nicolás Maduro is faced with the difficult task of ruling Venezuela whilst simultaneously facing inevitable criticism and opposition from large sectors of the population will we see he and his political allies attempt to build up a similar cult of personality around him?

Or will the focus remain on continuing the revolutionary narrative of his predecessor  and continuing to add to the cult of personality surrounding Hugo Chavez?

In oil-rich Venezuela interesting times bode.

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