The bits of chavismo that will survive Chávez

1984-frontOver the last few months, I (along with everyone else in this business) have been fielding the same kind of requests: “can you write us 600 words on whether chavismo is likely to survive Chávez?” It’s started to annoy me, actually, because the only real answer is so obvious, and so banal: “well, parts of it will.”

The real question is which parts.

In its political practice, chavismo’s center-of-gravity is clear enough: ensuring that Hugo Chávez personally makes every decision of any importance in the country, and many of no importance at all. Insofar as this brand of personalism is chavismo’s essence and its end, the answer is a very boring “no” – chavismo cannot survive the death of Hugo Chávez.

But chavismo is more than its center of gravity, and its ideological dimension will live on. In its ideological sense, it’s also a mechanism for generating “truths” – or things broadly accepted to be true by millions of Venezuelans, which amounts to the same thing. That these “truths” seldom match up with the versions of “truth” arrived at via a more traditional, zanahoria method is beside the point – or, looked at differently, is exactly the point.

The paradigmatic truth, to me, is one that long obsessed Chávez: “Simón Bolívar was murdered by his oligarchic enemies.”

Now, this isn’t true in the historical or medical sense. Even the looney-tunes exhumation dreamed up by Chávez turned up no forensic evidence at all to back it up.

And yet, with disarming candor, Hugo Chávez declared it true all the same. Bolívar was murdered because it is necessary for him to have been murdered to close the narrative system of betrayal-and-redemption that chavismo is built on.

Bolívar’s murder is a sort of higher-order truth, one validated by the fact that it is believed by Chávez, parroted by his media and therefore has been established as true within the Truth-Making parameters of the Revolution. And make no mistake about it – today, in Venezuela, Bolívar was murdered.

Chavismo as an ideological system creates its own truths through the expedient of repeating them until they are believed. It makes truths out of assertions it needs to be true in order to preserve the moral order Chávez’s discourse creates, one where he is good, those who oppose him are bad, and when good things happen it is always because good people act, and when bad things happen it’s necessarily because bad people act.

This is why the idea that “the Opposition is to blame for Chávez’s cancer and must be punished for it” is well on its way to becoming “true.” We see clues to this scattered throughout official declarations.

The causal chain involved – when looked at coldly – is little short of insane: by demanding accurate information on the president’s real condition, the opposition is supposedly robbing Chávez of the peace and tranquility he needs to recuperate, and that somehow makes us responsible for his illness.

Let’s not mince words here: that makes zero sense. Yet, for an ideological system where the existence of bad things must always be explained by the actions of bad people, it makes perfect sense. After all, the premature death of the demi-god/caudillo is the very worst thing that could happen – it’s intolerable to a certain cast of mind for something like that to just … happen. It is narratively imperative for Chávez’s illness to be the fault of someone – of us. And so, chavismo is making it so.

It’s chavismo’s capacity to generate “truths” divorced from any evidence and based exclusively on the regime’s narrative needs that’s likely to survive Chávez’s passing. It is the aggressive, no-holds-barred perversion of the democratic public sphere that will be around for decades after Chávez has gone.

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