Hugo Chávez's presence can be seen everywhere. Huge billboards along streets, avenues and highways share the common mission of showing Chavez's image, just like if he was still ruling Venezuela. (PHOTOS: ANGEL BERMUDEZ)
Hugo Chávez is still alive. That's what anyone would think while visiting Caracas. His face, his eyes, his name and even his signature are displayed on almost every public building: from the National Assembly to the Palace of Justice, from the ministry of Science to the headquarters of the National Telecommunications Company, from Venezuela's Central Bank tower to the building of the International Airport of Caracas.
Eighteen months after he passed away, nobody would guess that he is no longer here.
Creepy as it might sound, even his voice is routinely heard, specially singing the national anthem on TV during the transmission of the meetings of his party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV, according to its acronym in Spanish).
Precisely in one of these rallies, a few weeks ago, the debate about the limits to the cult of Chávez reignited when one of the participants said the Lord's Prayer changing the words to honor the late head of state: “Our Chávez, who art in heaven, in earth, in the sea and in us the delegates; hallowed be thy name, thy legacy come to us to take it to the people...; give us today your light so that it guides us every day and lead us not into the temptation of capitalism, deliver us from the evil of the oligarchy and the crime of smuggling, because ours is the homeland, the peace and life – forever and ever. Amen.”
In a written statement, Venezuelan bishops demanded that the government and the PSUV stop spreading the changed version of the prayer, “He who recites this new and wrongful version of the Lord's Prayer is committing the sin of idolatry,” they warned. Maduro reacted calling the bishops "part of a new inquisition." It was just a poem of love to Chávez, he said.
But Baltazar Porras, former president of Venezuela's Catholic Bishops Conference, denounced Chavism for misusing religion. “Manipulation and appropriation of Christian Catholic religion has been present in this government since its beginnings," he wrote in a local newspaper. "God is invoked, passages from the Bible or the Pope are cited in order to substantiate that there is nothing bigger than the socialism of the XXI century,” he added.
According to Oscar Schemel, who runs a public opinion consultant firm, Hinterlaces, starting 2003 studies show a growing social and emotional link between Chávez and his constituents. “It became a kind of religious relationship," he told Fox News Latino in Caracas.
"In 2006, 2007 we started seeing him not just as a political leader but also as a religious one, due to people identifying with him. They started considering him more like a father or husband, a protector,” Schemel said. “Chávez somehow became a kind of preacher to the masses.”
Today's cult to the dead leader, in fact, started long before his death. Venezuelan historian Elias Pino says that it was Chávez himself who began promoting the cult. "He tried to show himself as a saint. It was just like Saint Louis, king of France, who always presented himself in public with the distinctive iconography of the holy men,” Pino said.
Pino recalled that since Chávez got sick, the government began a kind of intrigue campaign about his health. “They tried to underscore that he was no ordinary man but someone with a higher destiny and immediately after his death they started calling him as eternal and supreme commander,” he said to Fox News Latino.
“That wasn't improvised. There are strong reasons to believe that it was deliberate and planned well ahead, and developed making use of state resources,” he added.
On March 7, 2013, two days after the death of Chávez, his political heir Nicolás Maduro announced that the corpse of the Venezuelan president was going to be preserved in order to be displayed in a crystal tomb. "It's been decided to prepare the body of our President commander, to embalm it so that it remains open eternally for the people, there, at the Museum of the Revolution. Just like Ho Chi Minh. Just like Lenin. Just like Mao Zedong," Maduro said.
The body couldn't be embalmed due to technical reasons, but the political decision to establish a sort of cult toward the dead political leader remained unchanged.
Chávez's body was buried in the Museum of Military History, an old barrack from where he led a failed coup against president Carlos Andres Perez in 1992. When he got to power, Chávez turned it into the Museum of the Bolívarian Revolution and after his death it was converted in his mausoleum and rebranded as the Mountain's barrack — a museum dedicated to his life, protected by a guard of honor. It has become a place of pilgrimage for his followers and an unavoidable stop for foreign leaders visiting Venezuela.
Comparing the cult of Chávez with the worship of Venezuela's independence hero, Simón Bolívar, Pino said that the latter was spontaneous while the former was manufactured. “For Venezuelans, Bolívar was indeed a blessed and demigod. There was near unanimity on this after his death. For Chávez it is just the opposite, because there's a huge part of Venezuelan society (half or more) that considers an abomination the worship to his figure. This is something that conspires against the cult of Chávez driven by president Maduro.”
It remains to be seen if Chávez's figure can endure the test of history or, at least, a change in Venezuela's government.
Ángel Bermúdez is a reporter living in Caracas, Venezuela.