The Chávez Myth and Incredulous Europe

Rafael Rico Ríos discusses how Western critics struggle to understand the mythical dimension of Chavismo.


The Venezuelan legend of La Llorona tells the story of a young woman who is abandoned by her lover. In her madness she murders her own daughter, is cursed by the people and flees to the Venezuelan plains where she becomes a ghost. Since then, in the silence of some dark nights, she can be heard calling for her daughter in a terrifying cry. This story was first told to me by a good Venezuelan friend whom I respect for his clear and pragmatic intelligence, which are critical attributes to an understanding of the Venezuelan process. I asked jokingly, if he had ever heard La Llorona and he said “of course, everybody has heard her”. I looked at him shocked as he smiled at me. I thought his smile was of complicity, but over time I realised he was actually laughing at European disbelief and skepticism.

Alejo Carpentier, in his wonderful novel “The Kingdom of this World”, tells the story of the slave François  Mackandal, who was said to have magical properties, in his struggle against white domination in Haiti. Mackandal was captured by the colonial authorities. After gathering all the black slaves to witness his execution, they told how he became a butterfly to be eternally free. The myth of  Mackandal sparked a popular revolt. The question is not whether Mackandal had magical qualities, because the slave rebellion was absolutely real; a mystic who had political consequences. Alejo Carpentier called these magical and real stories magical realism.

We also recall the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez. In view of the waves of strange rumors which normally shake the streets of Caracas, worn out by the incomprehensible phenomenon, a good European friend concluded that “in Venezuela reality is unreal”. However, this interpretation of existence means that in Latin America anything is possible. Latin Americans believe in their legends, their myths and their revolutions because they believe in a magical reality, one that is fluid, unpredictable and can transform.

Chavez has died, now he is a legend and a myth. The debate in Europe is whether Chavismo will remain united, while shocked by the mystical manifestations of a people’s pain. They fail to relate how in the processes of Latin American liberation, the mysticism and unity of the popular movements go hand-in-hand. The Chavez Myth is cemented, reinforced concrete for the unity of Chavismo’s factions, which will work for a long time. Those who don´t stay true to Chavez’s memory will leave Chavismo.

Ahead of the April 14 elections, Chavismo’s unity is  guaranteed whilst the opposition, which was held together by a set of interests against Chavez, has serious problems of cohesion that may adversely affect the mobilization of their electorate. Whilst alive, Chavez held Chavismo together, but more importantly, he held together the opposition.

Although the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), have agreed on the unique nomination of Capriles, the  opposition electorate perceives the internal divisions and lack of political leadership, resulting from the  heterogeneity of the political currents within it. It is true that the opposition came very close in the last presidential elections. However, electorally, Chavismo need not worry about the opposition: if Chavismo mobilises all its electorate, it will win easily. Paradoxically, in order for the opposition to win Chavista votes, they would be forced to use the Chavez Myth by arguing: “Chávez himself was a true leader and you are not Chavez.”

In any case, the Bolivarian Revolution now has its legend which will give it body and consistency for a long time.  Latin America will continue down the path of change with its legends, myths and revolutions. Europe, however, does not believe in itself. In crisis stricken Europe, they believe in an inert reality, motionless and stiff. Perhaps Europe will have its revolution the night it regains its mystique, believes in its legends and hears the terrifying moan of its Llorona when it kills with hunger.

Translation by Adam Marshall.