March 7, 2003

Chavez’s Ace — Venezuelan Leader Taps Bolivar Myths, Cults

By: Alicia Torres


As Venezuela’s fate seems locked between President Hugo Chavez’s militant, underclass supporters and the middle class, media and business communities arrayed against him, a third force lurks behind the scenes.

Pacing the labyrinth of Venezuela’s popular imagination, the unnamed actor is the magical, long-dead General Simon Bolívar, the nation’s founding father. The Bolivar myth, skillfully channeled by Chavez, is key to the former paratrooper’s grip on power.

After leading a failed and bloody coup attempt in 1992, Chavez famously spent many months in jail and emerged from his “captivity” with a powerful rhetorical and symbolic ace card. Reaching into the confusing current of Venezuela’s political history, he found one untainted image, a myth untouched by decades of rampant political corruption and squandering of the country’s vast oil wealth, a messy recent history that started long before Chavez.

Hugo Chavez’s deft ability to incorporate into his campaign persona the historical legacy of the brilliant general who liberated half of South America from the control of the 19th century Spanish empire helped propel Chavez to the Venezuelan presidency in 1998 with over 80 percent of the vote. Today, Chavez’s cult of personality is centered on his image as Bolívar’s heir, the modern-day liberator of Venezuela’s poorest.

In the United States, no figure commands the same kind of reverence as Bolívar does in Venezuela. The country’s currency, plazas and universities carry his name. His maxims are taught in schools, broadcast on radio and emblazoned on government buildings. Bolívar is a liberator idealized in oral culture by small-town storytellers, and in the lyrics of traditional music such as contrapunto.

Chavistas, as the president’s supporters are known, call the areas they control the “liberated zones of the Bolivarian Republic” and adorn offices and homes with giant portraits of Bolívar. Chavez trumpets Bolívar’s dream of a politically unified South America, calls his political movement the Bolivarian Revolution and he has organized poor neighborhoods into political cells called Bolivarian Circles.

And, as Chavez well knows, besides the historical Bolivar there is a supernatural one, a figure of popular religious devotion who takes his place alongside other cult figures on home altars.

Alongside the Catholic religion, another spiritual tradition thrives in Venezuela, a popular religion with indigenous, African and Catholic roots called the religion of María Lionza. Based on the worship by Indians of a fertility goddess known as María Lionza, the syncretic faith predates any other touchstone of Venezuela’s national identity. Many Venezuelans would not inhabit a home lacking an altar to the religion’s principal divinities, each of which represents Venezuela’s vibrant ethnic mixture of white, Indian, and black.

These religious altars usually feature a portrait of Simón Bolívar, and the religion’s priests hold ceremonies in which the spirit of Bolívar is channeled through a medium who coughs when the general is present, since Bolívar had tuberculosis.

The official Bolívar celebrated in textbooks, statues and hymns still elicits the respect and devotion of Venezuelans, even if they inhabit luxury apartments. But in the figure of Chavez, some in Venezuela, including some of the nation’s poorest, also see the spirit of Bolívar incarnate. The tradition of María Lionza has fed Chavez’s grip on the country’s imagination.

Chavez encourages this by echoing Bolívar’s words and making his nationally televised speeches with a portrait of Bolívar placed next to his head. Venezuelans joke that Chavez always sets an extra place at his dinner table for Bolívar, and say that he parades the long hallways of his presidential mansion wearing the famed general’s cape. Whether the stories are true or not, Chavez is definitely obsessed with Bolívar’s legacy and exploits it to maintain power.

The president’s posturing as a 21st century manifestation of Bolívar has helped radicalize the conflict in Venezuela. On one side, he is still revered by a significant part of the population as Venezuela’s last hope — a second liberator. The enraged opposition, on the other hand, thinks Chavez has betrayed Bolívar’s legacy and 50 years of Venezuelan democracy with his authoritarian style and incendiary class rhetoric. It’s one reason the new Bolivarian Revolution is in danger of ending in a civil war.

Torres has published several books of poetry in Venezuela and was a columnist for Caracas daily El Universal. She currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Return to the Frontpage