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23 April 2024

As Chavez fights cancer, aides build his myth


As Hugo Chavez battles cancer in Cuba, his lieutenants here are actively glorifying Venezuela's firebrand leader in what observers see as a campaign to erect a heroic myth that can survive his death.

Since leaving Caracas for Cuba more than three weeks ago for his fourth and riskiest round of cancer surgery so far, the larger-than-life leftist Chavez has vanished from view for the longest stretch of his 14-year presidency.

Even so, his image has been ever present across the state-run media, in adoring new documentaries about his life and legacy and older video clips that lionize the "comandante."

Some highlight "Chavez's battles" with the imperialist enemy. Others evoke his closeness with Cuban leader Fidel Castro or trace his political lineage to independence hero Simon Bolivar, the father of the country.

The regime "exalts Chavez and his accomplishments because it seems clear that his absence could become permanent," said Luis Alberto Butto, a researcher at Simon Bolivar University.

"It can be seen in the both the volume and the tone" of the messages, said Butto, a historian and political analyst.

With sheer force of personality, Chavez has dominated Venezuela like few others in the country's history, overturning entrenched elites and bending its political system to his populist vision of "21st century socialism."

But with so much revolving around Chavez personally, it remains to be seen whether anyone else in his camp has the political skills and popular appeal to replace him.

Chavez has brooked no rivals and even when he named Vice President Nicolas Maduro last month as his successor and left him in charge of the country he did so without transferring the formal powers of office.

Debates that have multiplied on radio and television since the Venezuelan leader's departure for Cuba on December 10 have been devoted almost exclusively to him, rather than any potential successors.

Rebroadcast 24 hours a day, they are interspersed with news updates and music clips that glorify, if not deify, the ailing president. On some radio broadcasts, listeners recite prayers and poetry dedicated to him.

A new propaganda spot shows photographs of an adolescent Chavez against a background of clouds as solemn music plays, followed by pictures of the president hugging children and old people.

It finishes with an image of the leader in apparently contemplative mood in pouring rain and the slogan: "I am Chavez."

Underlying the barrage of imagery is a message that appears to be shifting from "Never without Chavez" to "Never without Chavismo."

Billboards and wall posters displaying giant images of citizens with the slogan "I am Chavez" or "the people are Chavez" also reinforce the idea that Chavismo will survive without its charismatic leader.

In a recent video clip, Chavez himself claimed: "I am not an individual, I am the people, damn it!"

But Butto said that represents a challenge for "Chavismo".

"It seems likely there will be no return, so the language has changed," he said.

"Today they exalt the figure of Chavez to establish a link between the president, his legacy and the future of his political project. The problem is that Chavez is the project."

Teresa Albanes, an advisor of the main opposition coalition, likened it to the personality cult that arose in Argentina around Juan Domingo Peron and his wife Evita.

"What the Chavistas want to say is that Chavismo will not end with Chavez," she said.

Top Chavez lieutenants like Vice President Maduro and National Assembly speaker Diosdado Cabello on several occasions said they would continue the Bolivarian revolution, no matter what the cost.

Often described as a populist movement by its detractors, Chavez's revolution has consisted mainly of redistributing oil revenues to the have-nots through a series of social programs.

The Venezuelan people have "the education, the political culture and the levels of organization to pursue this revolution at least until the end of the century," Maduro said from Cuba on Tuesday.