What happens if Chávez dies? (And why do they love him so much?)
Plaza Bolívar in the center of Caracas was filled with people today. Most people wore red t-shirts with images of the Chávez or slogans in favor of the Bolivarian revolution, as the governments political project is called. A boy was sitting on his father´s shoulders, waiving with a doll of Chávez clad in military outfit. A man walked around selling popcorn whilst another one sold buttons with images of Chávez. In the middle of Plaza Bolívar, looking down at the crowd with his sword held high, hovered the statue of Simon Bolívar on his horse. Caracas-born Simon Bolívar, or the liberator, as he is called in Venezuela, freed today’s Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia from the Spanish crown. In Venezuela he is ranking just below God in status, and Chávez always refers to Bolívar in his frequent speeches about the importance of sovereignty and independence from foreign domination.
Last night, just before ten o’ clock, Chávez announced on cadena nacional- transmissions sent live on all channels by law- that the doctors had found malign cells in his abdominal region again. Having just returned from Cuba on Friday morning, he would return to Havana the day after to undergo surgery for the third time. Against the doctors´ advice, he had come home to Venezuela for 48 hours to communicate this to the nation in person.
For the first time, Chávez also named who he had appointed as his successor in case something happened to him and they had to convoke new presidential elections; Nicolas Maduro, the current vice-president and foreign minister. Maduro, a former union leader and bus driver, is far from having Chávez´ charisma, but he has been a close confidant of Chávez for many years and is considered loyal, intelligent, ideologically oriented and hardworking.
At Plaza Bolívar, there were live transmissions from The National Assembly. The representatives were in session to grant Chávez permit to take leave from his presidential duties whilst in Havana. The crowd at Plaza Bolívar cheered and clapped when the pro-government deputies spoke. An elderly lady asked me where I was from and we started to talk. “I am here to support my president”, she stated firmly. I ask her what she thinks of Nicolas Maduro as his follower. “It is a good choice, he has been with Chávez for many years”, she said. “And anyway a seed has been sown that no one can take from us. We have patria -fatherland- now”, she said, echoing Chávez’ words from yesterday. “Asia, Europe, they are all looking at us, the gringos…it is for the oil. But we have to stand together for the patria. But some people don’t understand that”, she adds, knocking her front head. “Or perhaps they don’t want to understand”. As the majority of Chávez´ followers, she has the face and appearance of a pelabola- a poor person- in spite of her neatly combed hair and ironed shirt.
What happens if Chávez dies is difficult to say. Some would predict a situation of violence and chaos, and even armed confrontations. I doubt that, though I don’t discard it. My best bet is the following: within the pro-government ranks there will be hard internal rivalries. Not everyone who waves the flag of the revolution are true believers, and even if they are, turf wars will arise. This has the potential of creating a situation of tension and conflict debilitating the government´s capacity to exercise politics. The opposition will probably try to mobilize with all means possible trying to get the military and the “non-true believers” in government offices and political and public institutions on their side. Large amounts of money will be spent, and the opposition media will run aggressive campaigns trying to enforce an impression of chaos and ungovernability. But I doubt that the opposition will win back the presidential palace Miraflores in near future. If Chávez dies or becomes too sick to govern, he will become an icon and a symbol strong enough to mobilize people against the opposition, even if they will fight between themselves.
Because as the señora at Plaza Bolívar said, a seed has indeed been sown in people. Many commentators and journalist favors to look upon Chávez’ supporters as mere voting cattle, poor as most of them are. That is not only an implicit disrespect for poor people’s political rationality, but also a gross misunderstanding of to what extent Venezuelan society has been transformed since Chávez was first elected in 1998. Diverse networks and movements anchored in the grass root have developed, capable of mobilizing large amounts of people if necessary. Moreover, a political consciousness has been fostered amongst ordinary people even if the level of commitment with the “revolutionary” political project as such varies.
Whilst some vote for the government simply because life has become better because of its policies, others identify with Chavez and the government on ideological grounds. The government is by no means perfect, and people know that. Corruption is rife. Crime indicators are high, violence widespread. The bureaucracy is slow and inefficient. Parts of the police force are nothing but criminals themselves. Some of it can be blamed on the government; some of it can be blamed on deeply ingrained social and political practices and structures that are not easily altered. But one thing Chávez´ followers agree on- things were a lot worse before, and the alternative is not an option.
But why do so many people identify so closely with Chavez? The short and simplified version: The strong currents of a social contract between rich and poor that has been prevalent in Europe, at least until now, cannot be applied to Latin America. Classism and racism has deep historical roots, and the elites have treated the poor condescendingly at best. In Venezuela, as in the rest of Latin America, rich and poor live in deeply different and unequal worlds and as a consequence, have different world-views and political interests. Inequality becomes a defining feature of society.
Prior to Chávez, Venezuela was governed by elites for 40 years. State violence against the poor and the political left in particular was rife. The poor were socially and politically marginalized. The current opposition also emerges from upper echelons of society. Their political orientation is elitist in nature, and deeply influenced by neo-liberalism from the American right-wing, though they have tried to tone it down during the past years.
Chávez, the son of poor countryside teachers in the inland state of Barinas, has credibility among people because he knows what it is like to be poor. He has been hungry like them and swept dirt floors like them. He talks like them and makes jokes like them. His government has passed policies that have favored them. He has talked of injustice and inequality, and removed the stigma of poverty. He has rebelled against the US and how they have treated Latin America as their backyard. He has spoken of how popular and traditional culture has been devaluated, disrespected and left to oblivion. All these factors have found deep resonance amongst the poor, because it has allowed them to acquire a sense of identity, dignity and self-respect that the elites never have been able to grant them.
As I left Plaza Bolívar today, the crowd was chanting no volverán, no volverán- “they will not come back”. “They” are the elites, old and new. Only time will show if that is true.