Saint Chavez

Article excerpt

THE SOURCE: "The Shah of Venezuela" by Enrique Krauze, in The New Republic, April 1, 2009.

IN LATIN AMERICA, FEW CATHolics take their religion straight, preferring to filter it through local patron saints or other intermediaries. Things are a little different in Venezuela, writes Enrique Krauze, the editor of the Mexican magazine Letras Libres. There, Catholicism is not as deeply ingrained as it is elsewhere in the region, and the intermediary is a secular hero, Simon Bolivar, "the Liberator." And it is to the national cult of Bolivar that Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez owes much of his popularity.

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In the 1810s and '20s, Bolivar (1783-1830) and others led a series of military campaigns that freed Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Panama, Bolivia, and his native Venezuela from Spanish rule. But Bolivar's attempts to meld the newly independent states into a single country failed, and in 1830, having contemplated going into exile in Europe, he died of tuberculosis. In Venezuelan national mythology, reverence for the Liberator mingles with shame at having failed him--"treason" as the cardinal of Caracas described it in 1980--creating what Krauze calls a "Bolivarian passion story."

No Venezuelan has been more passionate in his adoration of the Liberator or more adept at appropriating the national obsession than Hugo Chavez. After his failed coup attempt in 1992, Chavez explained that "Bolivar and I want the country to change:' At meetings during his subsequent rise as a political figure, Chavez would set an empty chair for Bolivar at the head of the table; in Chavez's "delirious universe" according to Krauze, "only he could hear the voice of his invisible guest:' Chavez set himself up as the "High Priest" of the Bolivarian cult, and in his inaugural address after being elected president in 1998 spoke of the Liberator's resurrection. …