Photo: Alba Ciudad

Madurismo Buried Classic Chavista Nationalism

Chávez used to say that true Venezuelans were chavistas. Now Maduro is relaunching the patriotic rhetoric blackmail around an economic recovery narrative

On October 12th, 2020, Nicolás Maduro announced that the main highway in Caracas would undergo a name change from “Francisco Fajardo”, a conquistador born to a Spanish father and a Waikerí mother in present-day Isla de Margarita, to “Autopista Gran Cacique Guaicaipuro Jefe de Jefes,” a famous chief of the Caracas Indigenous tribe.

That decision wasn’t unimaginable. In power since 1999, chavismo has worked on the “reclamation” of national symbols, imagery, and culture. This process has allowed the bolivarian movement to carve out a political trace on the landscape of Venezuela’s cultural identity, to align themselves with the core of what is supposed to be a national purity.

It’s become difficult not to spot their label on something: they declared October 12th Indigenous Resistance Day; they redesigned the country’s flag and the national coat of arms; they created a new state and renamed another; and they renamed El Ávila National Park to “Waraira Repano”, as well as many streets and places across the country. I mean, chavismo even decided how Simon Bolívar must have looked, despite numerous portraits of his time, and imposed the national hero’s fabricated image.

More recently, they’ve ramped things up. In the last two years, on top of renaming Caracas’ main highway (and installing a massive statue of Guaicaipuro in case you forget), they’ve also successfully changed the city’s flag and its coat of arms. If that wasn’t enough, PSUV also removed traces of the Caracas lion that could be found across the city. The new Caracas flag can be seen on lampposts on the high-traffic Avenida Libertador, as well as the small plaza at Paseo Los Ilustres, which has been redecorated with a large LED screen displaying the Venezuelan flag, draped in crossed cloths colored yellow, blue and red.

Of course, we have reasons to question how much the government really cares about the country’s symbols and its Indigenous population, but the PSUV achieved its goal when it projected an image of strong patriotism. Chavismo has carefully cultivated an incredibly recognizable brand, one that’s hard for people to ignore.

Ripe Soil for Nationalism

In the meantime, due to the country’s collapse, Venezuela became an international pariah. Villains in TV and film have slowly become Venezuelan, and Latin and North American nations have increased the visa requirements for our migrants, making it harder for them to reach Chile or the US.

These collective tragedies and the international backlash are what make countries in crisis fertile soil for the rise of what Florian Bieber identified as “virulent nationalism”. For Bieber, virulent nationalism differs from its ethnic and civic variants because it can be used to artificially craft and establish a new culture.

While civic nationalism tends to try and unify people behind national pride, virulent nationalism is exclusionary. The “you’re either with us or against us” style of nationalism, if you will.

It’s easy to recall when chavismo leaned heavily into this narrative, claiming that those who weren’t with Chávez and his values weren’t even Venezuelan at all. That sort of discourse has toned down in recent years, but we’re likely to see it make a comeback soon enough as recent economic liberalization makes Venezuela a more attractive place to live and do business in.

However, they probably won’t be talking about Chávez and chavismo explicitly. We’re more likely to see them claim that there are two sides in Venezuela: those who want to see the country progress, and those who wish to see it stagnate. They’ll claim they’re on the side of growth and recovery, while their opponents will be painted as traitors who support the sanctions “against the motherland”. 

They’ll be able to abandon their old Chávez-heavy narrative in favor of a more “patriotic” one. This is because, over the years, chavismo has slowly imposed its own heroes and created new versions of old ones. They’ve tried passing off their ideals as those of Simón Bolívar, and they’ve tried to equate themselves to Venezuela itself. They have slowly worked on the creation of a new Venezuela, culturally speaking, one shaped in their image.

This isn’t meant to work on those who have a solid pre-existing notion of Venezuelan culture and values, but for younger generations who grew up under what has been 20 years of chavista governance. In the eyes of these people, the PSUV will be the party most aligned with Venezuelan identity, which will be because the party shaped it to give off that illusion.

The government knows that international backlash against migrants and the new economic recovery are creating the perfect storm to sweep up a younger generation in patriotic fervor, a generation which will soon be old enough to vote. This is why they’re pushing a new nationalistic agenda with flags everywhere and billboards of regular Venezuelans alongside Olympians like Yulimar Rojas and Daniel Dhers.

Let the Good Vibes roll

In this context, they are now making their moves to attract investment, appointing the president of the Venezuelan Center for International Investment, Félix Plasencia, as ambassador to Colombia isn’t a random coincidence. Powerful business owners, long distanced from chavismo, have spotted opportunities to make money amid recent economic reforms and liberalization. While some stand to make a profit in local securities, others heap praise on Maduro, hoping they’ll be considered for benefits. It’s all part of the same game of propelling a feeling of “everything’s fine” to a population fed up with hardships and an international community tired of the Venezuelan problem, and nationalism is a big part of the rhetoric around it.

Chavismo will seek to sweep everyone up in the “good vibes” of Venezuela’s recent economic recovery (a word which must be used with many asterisks). The new generation, which has become disconnected from the complex web of Venezuelan political occurrences, will be finding itself with a little more spare cash than before. They’ll be surrounded by comforts that we couldn’t find just four years ago, and may find the discourse of normalization and national pride that the regime is propagating very appealing. This generation has the potential of becoming a more influential electorate as the migration of disappointed Venezuelans and the death of elder voters increases the political weight of young people in the country who don’t remember how things were before Chávez.

We can already see the government’s appeals to the younger generation. In January 2022, the chavista leadership of Caracas and Distrito Capital announced a new Food Truck Fair in Plaza Venezuela. While originally meant to last two days, the food trucks have become a staple of the iconic Caracas roundabout. If you head to Plaza Venezuela on any weekend you’ll find hundreds, if not thousands, of people, starting right around the age of 15, spending time with their friends, eating and enjoying a Caracas afternoon. You’ll see the new Caracas flag, heart-shaped Venezuelan flags decorating the famous fountain, and you’ll see tens of people lining up to take pictures with a statue of Guaicaipuro which adorns a pedestal that used to hold up the Caracas lion.

It doesn’t even matter if the young patrons of those food trucks care about politics. All that matters is that they are responding to the lure of the place and are being exposed to chavismo’s version of Venezuela, which has the potential of washing out the bad memories of the hardships of 2017 and 2018.

Now the government will focus on creating a crown jewel, a premium version of what Plaza Venezuela has become, and they’ll do it in a place of national pride that can unite the elites (through their business interests) and everyone else (through patriotism for the New Venezuela).

They’ve already told us what it’s going to be: a brand new “unique luxury experience” at Isla La Tortuga, part of the country’s new Special Economic Zones. We’ll see the result of their efforts, as people with business interests in similar projects hide behind the government’s nationalism, claiming that their critics just want to see Venezuela stagnate, and younger voters look on, proud of their country’s achievement.

This new era of nationalistic “good vibes” is another thing the opposition is facing as we hurdle towards 2024 and it’s worth wondering what it can do, if anything, to break through the façade.