Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

On TV, a Vigorous Chavez ; Images Project Authority Even as a Showdown Looms over Swearing-In

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

On TV, a Vigorous Chavez ; Images Project Authority Even as a Showdown Looms over Swearing-In

Article excerpt

Though the Venezuelan president has not been seen or heard from since his departure for cancer treatment in Cuba on Dec. 11, he maintains a robust presence at home through the media.

They run around the clock on state television, highly polished videos of President Hugo Chavez hugging children, kissing grandmothers, playing baseball and reciting poetry. As supporters around the world hold up hand-lettered signs that say, "I Am Chavez," the president's voice is heard in a video shouting, "I demand absolute loyalty because I am not me, I am not an individual, I am a people!"

In reality, officials say, Mr. Chavez lies in a Cuban hospital, struggling through complications from cancer surgery while his country heads toward a constitutional showdown over his absence.

Mr. Chavez's fragile health has thrown Venezuela into political uncertainty. After being re-elected in October, he is supposed to be sworn in for the start of his new term on Thursday, but the charismatic leader who has dominated every aspect of government here for 14 years may be too ill to return in time, much less continue in office for the next six years. Top government officials insist that the swearing-in is just a formality. The opposition, meanwhile, says the Constitution requires that Mr. Chavez be present or, in his absence, that a process begin that could lead to new elections.

The government's television barrage seems intent on reassuring loyalists -- and anyone who might raise questions -- that Mr. Chavez is still very much the head of the nation. By keeping his image front and center, analysts say, the government can bolster its position as the caretaker of his legacy, mobilize its supporters for the battle over interpreting the Constitution and build momentum for itself in elections should Mr. Chavez die or prove too sick to govern.

"They have combined the mechanisms of left-wing struggle with the best marketing team there is," said J.J. Rendon, a political consultant who opposes the government.

He compared the story of Mr. Chavez's illness to a telenovela, one of the popular Latin American soap operas, with its unexpected plot twists that keep viewers on edge. "They are always prepared for different scenarios," he said of the government.

During past trips to Cuba for cancer treatment over the last year and a half, Mr. Chavez worked to maintain his customary visibility back home, heading televised cabinet meetings, making phone calls to government-run television programs and posting on Twitter.

But this time is different. He has not been seen or heard from since his surgery on Dec. 11.

To fill the void, the government montages combine elements of campaign ads and music videos, sometimes with the feel of a religious revival broadcast.

They are Mr. Chavez's greatest hits, showing him on the campaign trail or in scenes from happier times during his many years in office, a nostalgic and emotionally charged way for his supporters to connect with their absent leader. Set to rock, rap or folk music, they mine parallels between Mr. Chavez and his hero, the Venezuelan independence leader Simon Bolivar, and resonate with the religious devotion with which some of his followers regard him.

In one, Mr. Chavez is seen reciting a favorite poem exalting Bolivar. Another shows glowing pictures of Mr. Chavez while choirlike voices sing, "Chavez is the triumphant commander, Chavez is pure and noble love."

"There is a process of converting Chavez into a myth with religious roots," said Andres Canizalez, a communication professor at Andres Bello Catholic University.

The television spots, he said, are part of "a political strategy to keep alive this idea that Chavez is not just a political leader but he's the father of the country, he's a patriarch, he's a figure who protects us, who takes care of everything for us, something more than a president. …

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