Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era
Venezuela's Chavez joins region's personality cults
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- Evita Peron. Che Guevara ... and now, Hugo Chavez?
While Venezuela's sick president recuperates from surgery in Cuba, in Venezuela he is alive and well -- at least in spirit.
There he is gazing from huge murals lining the streets of Caracas, on T-shirts sported by his followers, on television booming "I am a nation!"
The cult of personality that Chavez long nurtured has been flourishing like never before as he confronts an increasingly difficult struggle against the mysterious cancer that afflicts him.
Leftover campaign posters from his last election in October still hang from windows and above doorways in the slums, while his supporters' devotion has intensified into a fervor that borders on deification.
One woman at a pro-government demonstration on Wednesday held a portrait photo of Chavez next to an image of Jesus. New murals showing only the president's eyes have appeared on city walls along with a new slogan, "I am Chavez."
The iconic eyes-only design sends a message that he is always watching and still with his adoring constituents. Many credit him with easing their poverty and expanding public services. To them, it does not matter that Venezuela suffers from 20 percent inflation, that the oil-producing nation is often short on cooking oil and sugar, that it has one of the world's highest murder rates, that the president will not divulge the details of his cancer.
"I am Chavez!" his supporters yell at the rallies in his honor. "We're all Chavez!" the crowds shout in unison.
Filling the void of Chavez's 6-week absence following a fourth surgery in Cuba, the government has been churning out a steady stream of emotional images, slogans and Chavez sound bites that appear poised to solidify Chavez's legacy as a messianic savior of the poor.
In newspapers, the government has been running one ad showing a photo of the president superimposed on a mosaic of smiling faces of Venezuelans: Chavez men, Chavez women and Chavez children of all ages.
Juan Pablo Lupi, a Latin American literature scholar, sees parallels with the way Evita Peron became an enduring political symbol in Argentina, and the way "Che" became a revolutionary icon after his death. In the case of Chavez, he said, "this has been very well-staged, all this process of myth-making and appealing to the feelings and religious sentiment of the people. This is something that is quasi-religious."
Lupi, a Venezuelan associate professor at the University of California Santa Barbara, said he expects Chavismo to go on without Chavez.