On eve of poll, Venezuela vendors lament end of boom-era for Chávez kitsch

Late President Hugo Chávez may have sent shivers down the spine of businessmen with price controls and by nationalizing more than 1,000 companies and properties during his 14-year tenure, but in the world of merchandising, the charismatic socialist was by no means bad for business.

“Chávez sold his own image!” laughed Aquilino Cabrera, 67, while brandishing a crisp Chávez trucker cap at his silk-screening shop in central Caracas. In the gamut of political paraphernalia, “there was nothing like him,” Cabrera said of Chávez — a Statesmen as marketable as Mickey Mouse.

But now, just a month after his death, street hawkers and wholesalers agree that the decade-spanning craze for all things Chávez may be cooling off. And as the nation prepares to choose his successor on Sunday, merchants worry that his iconic image will be difficult to replace.

Not unlike his hero, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, El Comandante was no stranger to political kitsch. Well before his death, Chávez’s picture was captured on everything from coffee mugs and key-chains to pens and posters.

For 30 years Cabrera said he’s done swift business wholesaling political-wear to street vendors or customizing it for collectors. From T-shirts featuring controversial former President Carlos Andrés Pérez, or buttons of hopeful Henrique Capriles, he says Venezuelans have always been keen on personalized prints.

Cabrera said he could sell a full run of 7,000 Chávez shirts in a matter of days. But he’s convinced there’s little shelf life for Chávez memorabilia.

“At one point, everyone loved Carlos Andrés Pérez,” Cabrera said. “Who do you see wearing him now?”

Diana Pareja, 40, runs Inversiones Lumandi 2030, which distributes photos and posters nationwide. During Chávez’s presidency, his paraphernalia was some of the most in-demand to roll off the factory presses, she said. When business was booming — during campaigns or the highs and lows of Chávez’s health saga — sales reached some 10,000 images a month, she said, far surpassing other top sellers, such as sports stars and saints.

Those records, however, were dwarfed last month, when Pareja says sales more than quadrupled following Chávez’s death.

“Even my squalid friends” — a derogatory slang reserved for Chávez’s critics — “wanted a Chávez photo for their homes,” she said.

But Pareja also recognizes that the heydays —when queues of street hawkers eager to snatch up supplies stretched for blocks in front of her store — are over.

“It’s not going to be the same,” lamented Pareja, as she stood beside piles of unsold Chávez prints.

At a recent Maduro campaign stop in downtown Caracas, Carlos Gutierrez, a 48-year-old street vendor, said he sold almost 18,000 Chávez portraits after the leader died March 5.

“No one wants them now,” he grumbled, not even at half-price. “I suppose everyone already has one.”

Facing sagging Chávez sales, some are trying to capitalize on the opportunity of yet another presidential campaign.

On Thursday, Miranda Gov. Capriles and Chávez’s ally and interim President Nicolás Maduro were closing their campaigns.

“Elections here are always a party!” Cabrera explained while flaunting a pair of freshly printed Capriles and Maduro coffee mugs.

Pareja, a self-professed Chavista, said it’s difficult for her to reconcile business and politics. She’s reluctant to carry Capriles kitsch.

As she showed off new designs featuring Maduro and Chávez side-by-side she said she was hopeful sales could take-off again. “He just needs a bit of help,” she said.

Others seem less convinced.

When asked about the sales prospects of Maduro prints, Gutierrez shook his head and said he had not made a single sale that day.

“Chávez,” he said, “was one of a kind.”

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