As Venezuelans vote in the Sunday presidential election, this question is on the minds of many: Will Chavismo survive without the late President Hugo Chávez? The populist autocrat’s body is not going to be immortalized in the embalmed state, but his spirit, I believe, will not fade away any time soon.
While covering Chávez’ inauguration in 2006, his supporters took me to the slums to show me how the revolution helped improve the lives of the poor. During this motorcycle trip and after many other encounters with Chavistas, I got to know the roots of Chavismo. It was a combination of newly found self-esteem — now, they were here to run things like never before and strength derived from the like-thinking crowd. A sea of red-clad people gave Chavistas the sensation of super power and the exploitation of feelings of fear and uncertainty. Anything anti-Chávez was seen as dangerous.
As we were zig-zagging the hills above Caracas, which are densely populated by shacks, Chavista Enrique told me: “Revolution is a serious business. So many people want to discredit it. We must be vigilant and protect it, whatever it takes.”
I had to be scrutinized, too. Before we embarked on the journey through the slums, Enrique, who cast himself as the leader of our group, urged me to get the official approval for the trip. The document granting me access to one of the shanty towns was handed to me by a heavy-set lady in an office close to the presidential palace, Miraflores, in downtown Caracas. She had a miniature Chávez statue on the table next to the president’s framed portraits. On her head was a cap that read “Yo Soy Chávez!” (I am Chávez!)
Enrique was wearing the same cap. “We cannot go back to the pre-Chávez era. That would mean a return to slavery,” he lectured me as we were about to mount the motorcycles. On our way, I saw a new school, a hospital, a playground and a grocery store supplied once a week by the government with subsidized food. All the projects were reportedly created and set up by Chávez.
Another Chavista named Tony, who was driving the motorcycle as I sat on the rear seat, was also messianic in his tone and deadly serious in his looks. “Look around at this tremendous poverty. How shameful for the country so rich with oil like Venezuela to let people live in the dirt! Fortunately, Chávez came!” he said. “And he will stay.”
I thought Tony was right about the absurdity of the high poverty rate in a country with oil abundance so I nodded. Enrique wrongly interpreted my positive reaction as a nod to the revolutionary achievements and Chávez’s persona. For the first time he smiled.
However, this mutual understanding was short-lived. On a slope across the way, I saw a new shantytown springing up. Knowing that these were built by people coming from the countryside and attracted to Caracas by the promise of government handouts and low-cost services, I asked Enrique about the exodus. “We can take care of everybody who wants to be here. These villagers had a tough life, they deserve to be better off,” Enrique snapped.
A housing shortage is just one of many issues facing post-Chávez Venezuela. Still, Chavistas were not bothered by persistent problems. It will get fixed sooner or later, I was hearing. With an uneasy feeling growing inside me, I came to the conclusion that Chavistas regarded the Chávez revolution as the last stage of social and human development in Venezuela. Relinquishing power in a democratic fashion was out of question for them because they saw the “others” as inhuman. Tony’s previous words rang through my mind: Chávez came and Chávez will stay.
I asked myself: Where does this Chavista intolerance that I personally witnessed on many occasions come from? Watching Enrique, Tony and other staunch supporters of Chávez, I understood their motivation and their tendency to dismiss differences of opinion with hot-tempered expression. Since Chávez came to power, for the first time in their lives they felt that their efforts had purpose and meaning. Through their larger-than-life leader, they discovered their dignity. Add dozens and dozens of welfare programs, and Chavistas will probably try hard to keep Chavismo alive and defend their interests and newly found self-importance.
I was back in Venezuela in 2010 and their commitment to protect the revolution had the same intensity as it did in 2006, and maybe even more.
Chávez was able to turn once democratic Venezuela into an autocratic country, and, to his credit, without unleashing terror. But opponents of Chávez do not like living in this intellectual apartheid system. Chavistas, for their part, see their own possible departure from power as a threat to their very existence. This mix is volatile and could lead to future clashes.
It remains to be seen who will be the next president of Venezuela. An opposition leader in Miraflores could establish a society where all classes are respected, and no one lives at the expense of others. This would mean not just the end of Chavismo, but the resuscitation of the democratic opposition deeply damaged by the corruption and cynical social policies of the past. The poor cannot be left behind as before.
The seed of fierce populism that Chávez planted in his supporters’ hearts overtook their minds to the extent that they call themselves Chávez. In doing so, they gave up their individuality and are dragging Venezuela closer to a dictatorship.
Eduard Freisler is a Czech journalist who lives in New York.