Venezuela's Personal Jesus

Venezuelans line up on the grounds of the military academy in Caracas in early March, waiting to see the body of Hugo Chavez, who died after a prolonged battled with cancer. Photo by Ezra Fieser.

Venezuelans line up on the grounds of the military academy in Caracas in early March, waiting to see the body of Hugo Chávez, who died after a prolonged battled with cancer. Photo by Ezra Fieser.

By Ezra Fieser


CARACAS, Venezuela—They lined up at dawn, donning the bright red that became synonymous with Hugo Chávez’s 21st century socialism, and waited for hours. The line of mourners snaked outside the military academy where Chávez’s body lay, through sun and shade, through the gates, past the army tanks children played on, and down a boisterous street where vendors hawked hats and t-shirts. Spontaneous chants, “¡Pa’lante Comandante!” broke out. (Forward commander!). It had been days since Chávez’s casket was paraded through the streets of Caracas, before arriving triumphantly at the military academy, and the line still stretched for miles. And here were his followers—the Chavistas—the same Venezuelans who repeatedly elected their hero to the presidency in landslide victories.  Under an unrelenting sun, they waited for 10, 13, 15 hours, some after driving in from the countryside overnight.

Chávez’s 14 years in office were marked by attempted coup d’états, defiant standoffs with foreign leaders, bizarre speeches and massive social change. But the scenes that played out around the week of his funeral proved more dramatic than any political moments. His supporters kept coming, carrying backpacks for their overnight trips, dripping in sweat in the tropical sun, and smiling every time one of the hundreds of foreign journalists snapped a photo.

I walked along the line on the day of Chávez’s state funeral, taking photos of those who called for it, chatting with supporters. Inside the academy, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sean Penn, several Latin American presidents and seemingly everyone in between sat before his casket. Those in the crowd outside would have to wait another four hours before the line could move. Waiting was worth it, they said, even though they’d get only a fleeting few seconds before the body. “He was our blessing,” one man told me.

Depending on whom you asked, Chávez was a blessing or a dictator, a cult leader or a charismatic politician of the people, a president dedicated to his socialist cause or a megalomaniac dedicated to building his ego. Supporters considered embalming him, putting his body under a glass tomb and displaying it for generations to come, a la Eva Péron, Lenin and Mao Tse-tung. Detractors said they’d go nowhere near his funeral, let alone stop for a moment of silence. His supporters think he’s something equal to Jesus. His opponents think he’s gone to hell.

How did Chávez become a man admired by followers, loved by foreign allies and simultaneously reviled by many Venezuelans and leaders in the U.S. government and elsewhere?

Historians and political scientists will surely be studying the Chávez presidency for decades, debating the answers to those questions. But what has been clear for some time is that religion played a central role in creating Chávez’s legend. He developed an acrimonious relationship with the hierarchy of the powerful Catholic Church, challenging bishops who had been seen by many poor Venezuelans as part of the country’s oligarchy. Meanwhile, he embraced Christian socialism, which blends the teachings of Jesus Christ and socialist theory, at times even likening his work to that of Christ, while utilizing technology and broadcast mediums to promote himself in a way that even the savviest televangelist could not have imagined. Providing homes, education, health care and food for the poor didn’t hurt his Jesus image, either.

Praying to El Comandante

A predominantly Catholic country, Venezuela has always had a soft spot for deities, the most prominent of which is María Lionza. María Lionza, as the legend goes, was the light-eyed offspring of an Indian chief. As a young woman, she became enchanted, fleeing to the thick vegetation of Sorte Mountain in Yaracuay, a state west of Caracas. Her cult followers, who consider her a goddess of love, peace and fertility, believe that she still lives in those mountains. And every year in October, thousands of pilgrims travel to the region to ask for blessings and spiritual cleansing in ceremonies that most closely resemble Santeria, a blending of Catholicism with Caribbean and Western African traditions. Followers believe that spirits can communicate with the dead through mediums. As many as 15 million Venezuelans—about half of the country’s population—are said to belong to the cult of María Lionza.

After Chávez’s death was announced on March 5, Venezuelans began placing statuettes of El Comandante alongside those of María Lionza on their altars. People were praying to him.

It may seem an odd response for a fallen president, but the near immediate ascension reflects the idea that Chávez’s followers considered him saintly; he answered many of their prayers. He used the nation’s oil riches – Venezuela has the world’s largest petroleum reserves, ahead of No. 2 Saudi Arabia – to redistribute wealth and pull millions out of poverty.

It’s hard to overestimate what Chávez meant to the people who live in the slums that crawl up the hills around Caracas. They had long felt abandoned by the government, excluded from the political system and destined for generations of poverty. After Chávez took control of the nation’s oil riches in 2004, he cut the poverty rate by half and extreme poverty by nearly 70 percent. He did so by taking the money generated by oil exports and spending it on people like Amada Quintana, a poor mother who grew up in the countryside and, like so many other Venezuelans, came to Caracas to live in grinding poverty.

Amada Quintana sits in her living room in the La Cumbre neighborhood, a slum in Caracas. The social programs brought in by Chavez gave Quintana a new home, a basic education, a pension and more. A photo of the former president hangs on her wall. Photo by Ezra Fieser.

Amada Quintana sits in her living room in the La Cumbre neighborhood, a slum in Caracas. The social programs brought in by Chávez gave Quintana a new home, a basic education, a pension and more. A photo of the former president hangs on her wall. Photo by Ezra Fieser.

I visited Quintana at her home in the slum of La Cumbre a week after Chávez died. I rode a clean, rattling subway car to the second to last stop, paying less than the equivalent of 50 cents for the ride. I made the trip with a young Venezuelan friend, a university student who grew up in La Cumbre, which sat atop the hill, about a mile from the station. We walked from the metro station down a wide boulevard. Government workers were replacing pavers and laying new water tubes. My friend told me that the neighborhood erupts in violence during the weekends. “Sometimes there are 20 murders or more in one weekend here,” he said.

We climbed into a modified Toyota SUV. The back seats had been removed and replaced with two long bench seats that faced each other. While we waited for passengers, a woman with a baby struggled to climb in through the back doors. I stood to help her and she handed me her baby, an infant girl. We pulled away as the baby slept on my shoulder and the mother nodded approvingly. The jeep climbed the mountainside; its gears wound. The mother tapped on the roof; she wanted the next stop. She got out. I handed her the baby and she was off, disappearing in the searing mid-morning sun past a mural depicting Chávez.

We jumped off a few streets later and walked down zigzag staircases that led to Quintana’s house. My guide pointed out the water pipes, the new houses, and the repaved staircases. Chávez gave the residents of La Cumbre just about everything worth having. Through so-called Bolivarian Missions – government funded anti-poverty programs – Chávez educated adults who couldn’t read or write. He opened health clinics and staffed them with Cuban doctors. He built simple, colorful homes on what seemed impossibly steep spots on the hillsides in Caracas’ outskirts. He fed the hungry with neighborhood soup kitchens. He even sold them household appliances at half price.

“He was like a son and a father,” Quintana told me as she sat on a fake leather couch, feet planted on a polished concrete floor, painted a cheery blue. “He was everything.” A Bolivarian Mission rebuilt her house a couple years ago. Even though she’d never worked in the formal economy, Quintana was given a government pension of about $300 a month (far above the poverty line of $2 per day, as set by the World Bank). Another mission provided her with a basic education. “I can’t explain how important it was to learn how to read,” she told me.

A portrait of the late president hung on her wall, a few feet above a photo of her 31-year-old son, Daniel, who was shot dead in January, a victim of a crime wave that seems to have touched everyone here. Quintana, a friendly woman, dressed in a red t-shirt that read, “I am Chávez,” began to cry lightly when I asked about her son. But she kept the focus on Chávez: “I felt like I lost another son that day. I felt like I lost a child.”

We stepped onto a small balcony, devoid of furniture. Caracas filled the valley below, sprawling from west to east. Thick white clouds hung just above the steep mountain range that separates the city from the Caribbean Sea. From the balcony, the city was a mishmash of hillside slums and uninspired high-rises, some of them half-finished relics from the era before Chávez’s ascent to the presidency in 1999.

Quintana hadn’t always lived in Caracas. Like millions of Venezuelans, her family left rural farmland when the nation’s oil wealth was making people rich in the early to mid 20th century. The city grew unevenly with the influx of new residents. “People used to come out here and have a small farm or a house and it was the country. The air was cleaner and it was cooler,” another resident told me. “Now it’s hot and polluted.”

Chávez was not without his flaws, of course. He left behind a complicated country in which difficult economic and social questions must be answered. Along with the social improvements he introduced, the country also became more violent. It has one of the highest murder rates in Latin America and Caracas has become especially dangerous. Venezuela has long suffered from high crime rates, especially in its cities.  Chávez, who was certainly aware of the crime problem, may have overestimated the effects his social programs would have on the crime rate, scholars say. He may have reckoned that pulling people out of poverty, rather than strengthening the police force and judiciary, would make the country less dangerous. Instead, it became more dangerous. The homicide rate climbed to 73 murders per 100,000 residents in 2012 from 19.4 the year before Chávez took office, according to statistics gathered by the United Nations and the Venezuela Violence Observatory, a non-governmental organization.

The government routinely detained people who voiced their dissent.  Chávez squashed the independent—and more critical—press in Venezuela, building up a massive state media empire in its place. The Committee to Protect Journalists, in a  2012 report, called it a “remarkable reversal of the media landscape prior to Chávez’s rule. … When critics accuse  Chávez of a media power grab, his loyalists counter that the government effectively democratized the press by wrestling control from a powerful oligarchy with its own agenda.” But the result has been to create a media environment that’s little more than a government mouthpiece, broadcasting every government movement, every announcement.

One student opposition leader I interviewed, Julio Cesar Rivas Castillo, was imprisoned on charges of inciting civil war, among other things, even though he said he was just leading a peaceful demonstration against government measures. He subsequently went on an extended hunger strike to protest his imprisonment, losing the use of one kidney. He won his release, but the day I met him he said he had been living in a safe house outside of the city because the government had re-opened the case against him.

The city of Caracas, as seen from the hillside slum of La Cumbre. Photo by Ezra Fieser.

The city of Caracas, as seen from the hillside slum of La Cumbre. Photo by Ezra Fieser.

We drove through the backstreets of Caracas for two hours while he told me how he came to start a youth opposition group that opposed  policies. The group, and Rivas, rose in prominence after they helped defeat Chávez’s constitutional referendum to abolish term limits in 2007.  Chávez won the battle two years later when 54 percent of voters approved his measure to abolish term limits. But Rivas said he was already labeled. The government called him a CIA operative and a violent militant, among other things. “We’ve seen friends be harassed, get beaten up … all because we’ve opposed things by this government that we thought were unjust,” he told me.  “We’re not the ones that have used violence. They have.”

Human rights abuses committed during the presidency led the international watchdog Human Rights Watch to summarize his legacy thus: “Hugo Chávez’s presidency was characterized by a dramatic concentration of power and open disregard for basic human rights guarantees.” In particular, the group cited assaults on judicial independence and press freedoms and a wholesale rejection of human rights scrutiny.

Chávez’s economic policies were also a mixed bag. High rates of inflation continue. U.S. dollars are scarce, due to import controls. A black market for currency exchange has sprung up in which the US dollar fetches four times the official exchange rate. A lack of investment in the oil sector has threatened production of the petroleum that fueled Chávez’s socialist programs. And many of the private businesspeople were alienated during the Chávez administration. He expropriated their businesses and land, redistributing it in the name of equality. (The country is clearly a more equal place than when Chávez  took office, according to income equality and social equality measures.)  For example, the country’s gini coefficient, a measure of income equality, fell between 1999 and 2011, indicating a reduction in inequality, according to the United Nations.

One finds plenty of detractors to the Chávez regime in the neighborhoods that stretch out on the eastern side of Caracas. I walked the affluent Altamira neighborhood, through its tree-lined streets and past its cafes and restaurants on the day of Chávez’s state funeral. A resident told me I’d find “no Chavistas here.” It was business as usual; save for the ban on alcohol sales that drew complaints in a grocery store I visited. “He left this country in shambles,” the man told me.

Their hatred of Chávez stems in many cases from ideological differences; but for many, the situation is personal. Chávez expropriated 1,000 businesses or properties, sometimes without any apparent rational reason.  That alienated the private sector and angered many who felt he was overstepping.

Critics in Venezuela consistently mentioned Franklin Brito to me as an example of Chávez’s destructive policies. Brito had parts of his farmland taken over by the government because, he said, he was in a dispute with the local mayor, a member of Chávez’s socialist party. A legal battle ensued. Brito, who was adept at getting attention, did everything from cut off a finger for television crews after losing a court decision to going on repeated hunger strikes. Brito died in late August 2010, just shy of his 50th birthday due to effects of his last hunger strike. The facts of his case continue to be debated, but Brito has become a symbol for opponents of Chavismo. A small business owner told me that Brito may have just been one man, “but he stood up for what we all believe to be wrong.”

Through all of it, however, Chávez remained overwhelmingly popular. When it came time for for him to again run for president in late 2012, even while he battled cancer, he won handily. Chávez managed to be simultaneously politically popular and divisive.

That polarization only worsened after he died. His hand-chosen successor Nicolas Maduro, a mustached former bus driver whose attempts to channel Chávez’s powerful speaking style come off as weak and overdone, squeaked past an opposition candidate whom Cháveztrounced last year. In the days that followed, claims of corruption and cheating further polarized the country (even though it’s clear the election was secure). In late April, a fistfight erupted during a congressional session.

Supporters, however, blame Chávez for little if anything. Women who’d lost children to violent crime said the epidemic had nothing to do with the government. Shoppers who found their grocery store shelves devoid of products thanks to import shortages and currency problems shrugged it off. “So what’s a day without bread?” one told me. Rory Carroll, a foreign correspondent who was based in Venezuela, described it as the “Teflon-coated presidency.”

Indeed, even as problems in Venezuela grew and cracks appeared in the 21st Century socialism plan, Chávez won reelection by a landslide, despite battling the cancer that would eventually kill him. And it was not only the Bolivarian Missions—the gifts of housing and education—that allowed him to elevate to this status. Perhaps as important as his actions was his rhetoric.

The first socialist

Chávez  was famous for his outrageous phrases. Speaking at the United Nations a day after President George W. Bush spoke, he said, “Yesterday, the devil came here. Right here. This place smells of sulfur.” On Israel, he said, “They’ve done something very similar, even worse, than what Nazis did.”

In one of the most embarrassing moments in Chávez’s career, the King of Spain Juan Carlos told him to “Why don’t you shut up?” at an international summit in Chile. Chávez was in the middle of a rant in which he called a former Spanish prime minister a “fascist.” The slap down drew headlines around the world.

In what many saw as evidence of Chávez’s inflated self-image, he said about the incident, “If I keep quiet, the stones would cry out for the people of Latin America who are willing to be free after 500 years of colonialism.” It was a direct reference to a biblical passage from the book of Luke. As Jesus entered Jerusalem, riding a colt, his followers began to spread their cloaks and praise him, saying he had come in the name of the lord. When Pharisees in the crowd told him to rebuke the believers, Jesus “said unto them, I tell you that if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out.”

It would not be the only time Chávez referenced Christ. On Christmas eve, 2005, he said, “The descendants of those who crucified Christ… have taken ownership of the riches of the world, a minority has taken ownership of the gold of the world, the silver, the minerals, water, the good lands, petrol, well, the riches, and they have concentrated the riches in a small number of hands.”

In denouncing capitalism, he famously said, “If you really want to look at things through the eyes of Jesus Christ–who I think was the first socialist–only socialism can really create a genuine society.”

In these moments, Chávez was tapping into a growing evangelical Christian base. While still predominantly Catholic, Venezuela has seen evangelical sects make inroads by focusing on the everyday problems many people live with. Their sermons are considered more accessible and attractive. Evangelical groups, especially Pentecostals, have won millions of followers throughout Latin America. Evangelical movements in the region have grown from relative obscurity to 91.4 million members in just a few decades.

“You have to take into account the evangelical card, which is his support base,” Nikolas Kozloff, author of “Hugo Chávez: Oil, Politics and the Challenge to the U.S.,” told me in an email. “Chávez has his own brand of Christian socialism, and he plays up the Christ martyr complex in his rhetoric.”

He was able to broadcast that message through the multiple state-run television stations and through his use of Twitter and other social media. To say that he adapted to the new system of diffusion would be an understatement. He mastered it, expanding the number of state-run television stations, turning them into propaganda machines that broadcast his every public move. His television show, “Aló Presidente,” aired Sundays at 11 a.m. and usually came to a conclusion around 5 p.m., but it sometimes stretched on for hours more. It was unscripted, a reality show based on the president and his whims. He could break out into song, expropriate buildings, dance, criticize presidents and foreign policy or do, essentially, whatever he wanted. And the cameras were there, beaming the images to the people. His tweets were equally shrewd. His last tweet began, “I’m still clinging to Christ.”

While he was playing the evangelical card, he was also pushing back against the Catholic hierarchy.

While he was playing the evangelical card, he was also pushing back against the Catholic hierarchy. The Catholic Church is normally well respected in Latin America. But the church-state relationship in Venezuela was among the worst. In few other countries in Latin America, even in places where powerful bishops and presidents had opposing viewpoints, did the relationship become so combative.  At times, Venezuela seemed as if it were destined for the type of situation seen in Cuba where the island was declared officially atheist under the Castro regime.

Chávez referred to Catholic leaders as “Neanderthals,” and ignorant perverts.” He chose similar language for Cardinal Jorge Urosa, whom he referred to as a caveman for his opposition to communism. The Catholic leaders could be equally aggressive; to the point of suggesting Chávez needed an exorcism.

It wasn’t always this way.  Chávez himself was raised Catholic by his devout grandmother. Once elected president, he initially pledged his allegiance to the Catholic faith, citing the Catholic social doctrine. The bishops, although historically conservative, were enthused: They embraced the social reforms on which Chávez campaigned.

The relationship soon started to fall apart, however, when Chávez met with Monsignor Baltazar Porras in Caracas. He told Porras that he was going to reduce state subsidies to the church by as much as 80 percent. Porras and the Vatican’s emissary to Venezuela, Monsignor Andre Dupuy, proceeded to oppose policies, particularly his constitutional reforms. The once-promising relationship was tarnished.

Yet Chávez never fully separated himself from Catholicism. In fact, a year before he died he turned up at a Catholic church to pray for his life. “I ask God to give me life, however painful. I can carry 100 crosses, your crown of thorns, but don’t take me yet. I still have things to do,” he said.

And among the masses, Chávez his popularity never waned. Auxiliary Bishop of Caracas Jesus Gonzalez de Zarate, who serves at secretary general of the Catholic bishops’ conference in Venezuela, admitted that Chávez had a strong relationship with the people. “The people of Venezuela held him up, considered him a public leader that they felt a connection to; someone they were close with,” he told me. “There were years that were difficult, tense. There were attacks and strong responses.”

I spoke with one parish priest who delivers Mass near to where Chávez cast his final presidential ballot, presumably for his own candidacy. He told me that Chávez’s fiery style was, if anything, a benefit. “People viewed him as their defender, as one of them,” he said. “Catholics believed in him and the situation with the bishops didn’t matter.”

A few days before Chavez's state funeral, a crowd gathers to chant "Chavez Vive. La lucha sigue," which translates to Chavez lives. The struggle continues. Millions of people would line up to see Chavez's body  lying in state. Photo by Ezra Fieser.

A few days before Chávez’s state funeral, a crowd gathers to chant “Chavez Vive. La lucha sigue,” which translates to “Chávez lives. The struggle continues.” Millions of people would line up to see Chávez’s body lying in state. Photo by Ezra Fieser.

“No importa,” a man told me when I mentioned the heat and the fact that he faced at least three more hours in line after already standing for eight hours. It doesn’t matter. In the end, millions of people would see Chávez’s body. The line cleared eventually. People went back to work. The country elected his successor.

Observers continue to ask whether Chavismo is sustainable as a political movement, as an idea, or simply as a place in the souls of his Venezuelan supporters.

The day of Chávez’s funeral, I stood in front of the grand stands outside the military academy, not knowing exactly where to go, or what to do. I’d talked to dozens of people and they all began to sound the same.

A young woman approached me, she couldn’t have been older than 25. She tapped my shoulder, spun me around, and asked if I was American. When I said yes, she asked if I would pose for a photo with her. As a friend snapped the shot, she kissed me on the lips. “Love,” she said. “He showed us love, all his love. That’s why we’re here.”

I said nothing, only watched as she disappeared into a sea of red t-shirts. A chant began again a few moments later: “Chávez lives. The struggle continues.”

Ezra Fieser is a freelance journalist and editor based in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. His work has appeared in TIME, The Miami Herald, Christian Science Monitor, GlobalPost, Seattle Times, Knowledge@Wharton, Catholic News Service and elsewhere. 

With support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs.




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