During a difficult year in which the future of Chavismo has become increasingly uncertain, the government of Nicolás Maduro has continued to construct a civil religion around the figure of Hugo Chávez through a continual flow of ritual events.
These ceremonies construct a narrative in which the 19th century independence struggle against imperial Spain is constantly linked to the life of Mr. Chávez and his personal struggle against new forms of imperialism. Indeed, the life and death of Chávez himself is narrated as the reenactment of the life of Venezuela’s independence hero Simón Bolívar. President Maduro emphasized this connection in his speech on July 5, Venezuela’s Independence Day.
We are here today to make effective the message of independence that was enacted 200 years ago in this land of Venezuela, a great battle of ideas, a battle by those who were willing to open a historical time to the new man and women that live in this fatherland. We are aware today more than ever that this is a legacy left to us by Comandante Chávez. Today…we can say that thanks to Simón Bolívar, thanks to the men and women of our time, at 16 months of the physical passing of our Comandante Hugo Chávez, we have to infinitely thank our Comandante for giving us dignity.
Looking back at the first half of 2014 we can trace the multiple ceremonial events that are being used to construct a new civil religion.
A good starting point is the monthly commemoration of the death of Hugo Chávez at the Cuartel de la Montaña on the fifth of every month. These ceremonies have developed into a complex liturgy, broadcast by all TV and radio stations, which includes discourses, prayers, songs, slogans, and a cannon salvo exactly at 4:25 pm, the time of Chávez death. The complete “Civic-military High Command of the Revolution,” including Maduro, pay their respects.
During the 11th monthly commemoration, last Feb. 5, National Assembly Deputy Earle Herrera reminded those present that “on his death bed, Simón Bolívar said that Jesus Christ, Quixote, and himself had become the great ‘idiots [majaderos] of history,’ because of their obstinate condition as builders of utopias. Hugo Chávez used to recall this statement of the Liberator, not even imagining that he would become part of it: On March 5 at 4:25 pm our Comandante became the fourth ‘idiot of history.’”
The press note on that commemoration event by the official state news agency Agencia Venezolana de Noticias described the deep religious mood of the ceremony, and emphasizes the central role of Maduro, as chosen “son” of Chávez:
Standing, with lifted faces and fists against their chests, men and women fighters of the Bolivarian revolution honored the Comandante eleven months after his passing. Once again, his son, the President of the Republic Nicolás Maduro, led the event, holding hands with the deputies of the National Assembly and members of the executive cabinet, all of whom once again shouted ‘Chávez lives, the struggle continues!’
The first days of February were already packed with historical significance for the Bolivarian Revolution. Feb. 2 1999, Chávez officially took office for his first presidential term. Commemorating that date this year an article in the Agencia Bolivariana de Noticias wrote: “That February 2…the majority of the Venezuelan people resumed the Bolivarian project and dream of regional unity truncated in 1830 by the death of the Libertador Simón Bolívar and the dissolution of the Gran Colombia.”
Feb. 4 is even more important for the revolutionary calendar. On that day in 1992 Hugo Chávez burst on to the historical stage with a failed coup attempt that showed the vulnerability of Venezuela’s existing democratic regime. In official discourse the 1992 coup is not described as a coup, since in Chavismo that term is used to refer exclusively to right-wing military uprisings.
Instead Chávez’s actions of that day are referred to as a “civic-military rebellion” against “the neo-liberal model and the imperial domination of our humble and working people, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and their lackeys, the small politicians [politiqueros], the corrupt, and the Pacto de Punto Fijo which had betrayed the hopes of the people.”
In the Chavista narrative, after Bolívar’s death in 1830, his project and ideals were betrayed by Venezuela’s governing elites. The dissolution of the Gran Colombia, the successive dictatorships that ruled the country, the civil wars of the 19th century, and even the democratic period starting in 1958 were all part of this betrayal.
The reawakening of Bolivar’s 19th centuray dream was the “civic-military rebellion” of Feb. 4, 1992. As Maduro tweeted in the early hours of the morning of this past Feb. 4: “[It is the] dawn of the Revolutionary awakening under the leadership of the Giant of the New History, the Comandante Hugo Chávez.”
On March 5, the one year anniversary of Chavez’s death, opposition protests were still disrupting daily life in many Venezuelan cities but in the Cuartel de la Montaña, the last resting place of President Chávez, the mood was of deep commemoration for the first anniversary of the passing of the Comandante Eterno. The government designated ten days of official commemoration starting March 5 and public media constantly reminded Venezuelans that “the love of the people for Hugo Chávez is alive, strong, and vibrant.”
Maduro invited the people to participate in the commemoration ceremonies: “Chávez will go down in history as the vindicator of Bolívar, he turned him into the People, the present and future of the Fatherland,” tweeted Maduro the day before.
The events of March 5 included a civic-military parade, ceremonies in the Cuartel de la Montaña and the international premier of the documentary Mi Amigo Hugo by Oliver Stone, transmitted on several state television channels.
April 13 also marked an important date on the ceremonial calendar. On that date in 2002 Chávez, having been deposed on April 11 by a coup, was returned to power by a popular protests and military rebellion. This year’s commemoration included a mass rally in front of the Miraflores Palace. In his speech, Maduro called for a spiritual renovation: “It is time for a permanent renovation of love, of faith. I call on to the people to renew its love, faith, and confidence in the Bolivarian Revolution and the path to socialism.”