Magic Socialism: The New Cult of Personality


EspañolLast Wednesday, Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro announced the apparition of the late Hugo Chávez’s face on a construction site in Caracas. Through a national broadcast, Maduro showed the picture of the supposed miracle. This would be the second time that the Comandante Supremo has manifested himself in the physical plain, after his death on March 5.

In several ways, this cult of Chávez’s personality is acquiring a religious nature and establishing a magic socialism.

For Maduro, it’s not the first time he has encountered Chávez’s spirit. In April of 2013, right before the presidential elections, he claimed to have seen him in the form of a small bird who blessed him. Many followers then criticized the fact that Maduro dared to compare the Gran Líder de la Revolución with a small animal. However, the political use of the deceased Comandante didn’t stop. Months later, he announced on television that he had slept several nights in the mausoleum where Chavez’s remains are kept.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announces that Hugo Chávez appeared, and then disappeared.
Source: Miraflores Palace, handout via Reuters

After his death, Maduro expressed his desire to embalm the body of the late Comandante. This way, it could be shown to everybody as a symbol of the revolution, just like Lenin, Kim Jong-il, Mao Tsetung, Ho Chi Minh, and Eva Perón. It’s not a coincidence that all these leaders come from authoritarian and/or populist regimes. Even though Chávez’s body couldn’t be embalmed, its funeral was accompanied by long and exaggerated ceremonies, as a way to keep the follower’s feelings alive long enough until the election day.

Basically, his discursive strategy has been based in connecting himself beyond the grave and bringing his mentor’s memory into present reality. It’s clear that Maduro is far from being Chávez, but there’s no doubting that he tries to maintain a close association with him. This way, Chavismo‘s followers won’t reject Maduro as different, but instead they will identify themselves with him as all “equal” disciples of the great leader.

This mythification of a political figure is not new. Regimes like North Korea’s have vast experience in indoctrination and manipulation, to move people’s feelings and beliefs to keep them submissive. In addition of having the absolute control of force in their region, the power they have acquired over their citizens’ minds has allowed them to stay at the helm for more than 50 years. In addition, mystical events can help to regain the attention of the late leader’s followers. Venezuela has had elections every year for the last few years, so it has become harder to maintain the frenetic electoral energy.

Even though there have been special efforts to antagonize the internal enemy (the opposition) and the external enemy (the United States), there is a lack of power in the message, or the messenger. People are not that moved by Maduro, as they were by Chávez, and it’s getting evident. Especially in the middle of an economic crisis, people are more concerned about surviving the growing inflation than going to political rallies and attending the electoral polls once again.

From Magic Realism to Magic Socialism

In Latin America, the power of mystical events in societal beliefs has been strong. In fact, magic realism (realismo mágico) was born from this phenomenon. It became a literary genre that integrated mythical or fantastic elements into mundane stories, creating a realistic fiction. Famous writers from this genre like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges generally incorporated this cultural aspect of Latin-American societies with political critiques.

What we are seeing today in Venezuela reminds us a lot of the stories portrayed by these authors. Venezuela’s Socialism for the 21st Century has taken the essence of magic realism and has adapted it to its political aims. Impulse and feelings move the masses, and politicians have realized that. In fact, this tool has become a very useful way to maintain political unification despite the absence of the leader.

A woman lights a candle inside the newly inaugurated Santo Hugo Chavez del 23 chapel, at the 23 de Enero neighbourhood. The surroundings of the museum hold the remains of President Chavez. Source: AFP/Juan Barreto

Marx may have rejected religion as the opium of the masses, but Venezuela’s socialism has found the appeal of strong religious beliefs very effective. Due to the fact that there is no head to follow, its successors have had to draw on memories of the leader, and turn him into a unifying symbol. However, its effectiveness appears to be eroding, since Maduro’s job approval keeps declining.

Chavismo has grown into a mixed system of socialism, populism, leadership cult, historical victimhood, and religious and cultural beliefs — a puzzle of ideologies and values designed to move people towards the convenience of the political elite. In the face of electoral challenges and general discontent, we may have more mystical appearances to come.

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