Journey Into the Heart of Chavista Darkness (Updated)

Fresh from a week-long junket to Caracas for the 10th World Poetry Festival, German poet Xochil Schütz reels from the scale and depravity of the propaganda state she...


Fresh from a week-long junket to Caracas for the 10th World Poetry Festival, German poet Xochil Schütz reels from the scale and depravity of the propaganda state she soon realized she was full expected to shill for…

El recital comienza tarde, pero comienza. Sin mí, pero los escucho. El director de la Casa de las Letras, presente en el evento, entona himnos de alabanza a Chávez. El numeroso público está entusiasmado. Se escuchan los primeros gritos de “Chávez”. Los poetas venezolanos invitados recitan poemas de alabanza a Chávez. Estoy recostada en el asiento de atrás del autobús que nos trajo aquí. Poco antes de mi turno, me obligo a salir del autobús y a subir al pequeño escenario al aire libre. Un pequeñín tambalea al micrófono y dice que Chávez una vez lo abrazó y que lo ama. La multitud está emocionada. Estoy segura que en cualquier momento en Venezuela Chávez será declarado santo y se convertirá en religión. Tengo la sensación de que nadie me creerá esto en Alemania. Pero en Alemania nadie tiene idea de lo que está pasando aquí.

It’s always valuable to see these things through an outsider’s eyes to remind ourselves of just how far gone we are. Ms. Schütz closes with a soul-searching bit on what “dictatorship” means in this day and age, and here I think she goes a bit astray…

The semantic debate is old and stale. Even today, the kind of unhinged rhetorical fanaticism Schütz witnessed isn’t joined by the kind of political violence that we normally see as a defining feature of dictatorship. But really, the question obscures more than it reveals: whatever label you want to put on it, the political system Ms. Schütz saw in action is clearly not ok.

To me, it’s towards the end of the passage I cited above that she gets closer to the mark. Dictatorship/non-dictatorship is a European dichotomy, born of European categories and institutional structures that can’t quite capture the essence of the “not-okayness” she so clearly perceived.

That not-okayness isn’t political in nature. Because chavismo, deep-down, isn’t really a political movement. Its essence is mystical, afro-caribbean, rooted in a form of spirituality that nobody in Germany has any kind of reference point for.

What Hugo Chávez brought to Venezuela isn’t a “dictatorship” in any sense that would make sense to Erich Honecker or even Nicolae Ceaușescu. What we have is the takeover of the state, and much of the public sphere, by a new kind of religious cult that borrows heavily from the language of the political left to create a new devotional system.

And no, that is in no way ok.

Update: Just to get ahead of the silly tiff brewing in comments, I want to add that it doesn’t surprise me that people get horribly uncomfortable when I touch “la teclita” about the mystical-religious dimension of our shared Afro-Caribbean heritage – a heritage that remains as unmentionable and squirm-worthy as ever. After all: “even before starting to observe ourselves, to recognize ourselves and know who we are, before we were old enough to be curious about our identity and the means of formulating it, before that interrogative longing, the answer was given to us: we are western.”

To stress the obvious, I’m talking specifically about Afro-Caribbean forms of religious expression and belief – santería, basically – not about black or brown people. Because Afro-Caribbean Spirituality is shot through our society, covering the chromatic scale more or less whole. I’ve met too many sifrinitas catiras from Valle Arriba who just won’t make an important decision before talking to their brujo to doubt it…

I don’t believe it’s possible to sidestep these forms of religious expression/belief in a serious discussion of the collective psyche. Because they were there all along, in the cult of Bolívar, of Maria Lionza, of Negro Primero, in Sorte, in the brujo every family consults when they need a little extra help from el más allá…it’s just that they’ve blossomed aggressively in the last 15 years.

Chávez’s special genius, his unique insight, was figuring out a way to tap into these strains and mobilize them for political ends. That genius is now being channeled into the formation of a state religion. Just ask Xochil Schütz, she’ll tell you.

Obviously, it’s a lot easier to cry racism and refuse to stare these horribly uncomfortable facts in the face. And that’s your prerogative, certainly.