When Luis Florido decried the possible denial of a recall referendum in 2016 as a “betrayal of Chávez’s legacy”, plenty of opposition supporters were understandably upset. Why would an opposition politician paint himself as a palladin Chávez’ legacy?
One of the issues raised was that this kind of statement embellishes a disastrous legacy, and helps create or perpetuate the myth of Chávez, to make it part of our social imaginary.
But in terms of myth building and the social imaginary, Florido’s words will have little to no effect.
First, because the myth of Chavez is already so deeply rooted.
The foundation of a myth is a belief, based on an image meaning is projected onto. Many of Chávez’s supporters never questioned his policies, his vision for our country, or his understanding of democracy. The Chavez myth is not that of a politician, but of a person. Even if his policies were a disaster, they still believe he had good intentions. The result cannot be not his fault.
Second, because the words of other politicians have no bearing on this myth: they can no more perpetuate it than a leaf blown by a hurricane can help perpetuate it.
The myth is already deeply seeded among the faithful, by Chávez himself. According to him, his actions and deeds were not related to his duties as president. What he did, he did for love. He told us himself.
The misiones, the housing, the hospitals, the reading lessons, the free washing machines: “Everything, we did for love”, he said straight to the camera, asking for votes in 2006.
Though ephemeral, political speech still can serve to persuade.
Compared to myth, political speech is ephemeral. A myth is much deeper than words. Myths, including that of Chávez, are not easily formed, and likewise, are not easily manipulated. Many factors lie behind their creation and their enthronement in the popular imagination.
What politicians can do is manipulate the emotions of the Chávez faithful. Though ephemeral, political speech still can serve to persuade. It’s mere manipulation through speech, and in that sense, Florido’s messaging is good. He was talking not to the traditional opposition, but to those in the middle and on the other side.
Remember the video of Henrique Capriles with a woman with the face of Chavez tattooed on her arm shortly before the 6D elections? She was still a Chavez supporter. And yet she loathed the current government. Capriles never challenged her memory of Chávez, instead he focused on her rejection of the government.
When the video came out, I can’t remember anyone complaining that Capriles was helping perpetuate the myth of the Good Chávez. What he was doing was no different from what Florido set out to do: pulling the emotional strings of those Chávez supporters who feel that Maduro & Co. have betrayed him…and them.
The 6D election was won precisely because the opposition has managed to bring into the fold millions of people that once voted for Chávez, including many that still have fond memories of him. If the opposition is going to succeed in forcing some kind of transition, whether it’s in the street or in the ballot box (or in both), it’ll need the support of many of those who still like Chávez.
Chávez filled many vacuums, and especially the vacuum of affection.
Dismantling the Chávez myth is a goal fondly to be wished for, but it will take a lot more than reasoned explanations. Chavistas are not blind to the evidence: they can see the disaster around them. Chavismo’s failure is corporeal: they can feel it in their tummies. But their view of him is not entirely based on reason, it’s mostly based on faith and emotions. Chávez filled many vacuums, and especially the vacuum of affection. In their mind, he was theirs and they were his. Yo soy Chávez, remember? That’s not unlike Saint Augustine’s definition of love: the wish to identify oneself with the object of love.
That’s faith, not reason. And in a mano-a-mano, faith beats reason every time. When they do interact, it’s essentially always in the form of reason reinforcing faith.
If you want to transform a belief, you have no choice but to start from what’s already there. The Chávez myth is part of our social imaginary. Red, Chávez. When we talk about Bolívar, unfortunately Chávez pops into our heads, however briefly.
Capriles and Florido are on the right track: transformation can only start from people’s current beliefs. Words can persuade, said Aristotle, when there’s an emotional connection with the audience. Rhetoric is most effective when it’s based on sentiment and emotions. And the contents of these emotions were established by Chávez long ago, both through rhetoric and affection.
Hopefully, the opposition will have the chance in the near future to work on correcting the excesses of the Chávez’ years, and be the victors who get to write history. But first, they have to focus on convincing people to oust Chavez’ heir: only then can they work on the myth of Chávez.