On Political Books

March/ April 2013 Chávez’s Magical Realism

How the Comandante may get the last laugh, even from the grave.

By Daniel Kurtz-Phelan

Much of this dysfunction is the sad but predictable fate of a country living under the resource curse. In that sense, Chávez is as much a symptom as a cause of what ails his country. After all, it was a Venezuelan who first called oil “the devil’s excrement,” long before anyone knew the Comandante’s name. Yet in the end, what remains extraordinary about Chávez is how little touched he has been by the atrophy spreading beneath him, how he has hovered above it all and retained the faith of so many. By 2011, some of his supporters had even taken to shouting, “Long live Chávez, down with the government.”

In the past, Chávez has likened himself to Christ, “a great rebel … an anti-imperialist,” and attacked opponents with cries of “Burn the Judas!” As his cancer has progressed and his voice gone silent, that comparison has become more frequent and direct. One sign at a recent rally: “Chávez Christ I love you.” When he is dead, that faith will keep Chávez looming above Venezuelan politics—one final victory over his enemies.

The apostles have already started scrambling to claim and define his legacy. In December, Chávez anointed Nicolas Maduro, a union leader turned foreign minister, as his successor. But Maduro represents only one of many factions and interests: Castroite socialists, military men, street militia chiefs, Boligarchs who have grown fat and prosperous on the fruits of twenty-first-century socialism. When Chávez is gone, the knives will come out as they fight to protect the spoils and take up the mantle of the revolution, knowing well that for years, the fundamental question of Venezuelan politics will be, What would Chávez have done? He will be hailed as the model of every policy. He will remain the touchstone for ambitious upstarts eager to flaunt their opposition to the establishment or the United States. His name, his revolution, will be invoked to justify an expanding range of ideologies. Eventually, perhaps decades from now, chavismo will become so elastic a concept as to be meaningless. Only then will Hugo Chávez be truly defeated.

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Daniel Kurtz-Phelan an adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from 2009 to 2012, is currently a fellow of the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi and the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. He is writing a book about George Marshall.