Reflections After the Elections, How the Phantom of Hugo Chavez Flies Over Trump’s Authoritarianism

Trump and Chavez BeLatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of The Conversation.

“There are pasts that never leave,” writes Venezuelan psychoanalyst Ana Teresa Torres (Caracas, 1945) in her landmark book La Herencia de la Tribu. “The Venezuelan past is one of them.”

The renowned author and therapist draws a chronological line in her 2014 work, in which she dissects the Venezuelan collective unconscious and its deep roots in the myth of independence glory.

The so-called “heroes” of Venezuelan history do not manage to rest in peace at the National Pantheon. On the contrary, they have been ghosts that chase after the people’s identity; a people used to the fact that the hero must be impugner, as Torres says, one of those who dispatch solid arguments with ridiculous and despotic comments, in the best style of a critically-hated Napoleon.

For Torres, this archetype of “the hero” has key characteristics. He must be someone prepared for scandal; his actions lead to a surprise that breaks with established patterns. 

“He must always make foolish proposals, advance plans that by their very nature are unachievable, promote in the listeners the need for a novelty they had not thought of, keep alive the hope that in the future the improbable awaits,” explains the author.

Although she starts from the idea of Simon Bolivar as the hero by definition, it is the relationship of the people as “sons of Bolivar” that further complicates the communion of Venezuelans with authoritarian characters.

It is as if we were always searching for that father whom we betrayed, that father who saved us, and to whom we should pay unmitigated tribute.

“Is it possible to think of Venezuela outside of Bolivar?” asks Torres.

Now, more than two hundred years later, the question is whether Venezuela will be able to think of itself outside of the ghost of Hugo Chávez Frías, who took the Bolivarian myth to unthinkable levels.

Bringing the Trauma of the Revolution to the North

“Today we could say that the revolution comes from there, without a doubt, from Bolivar, who returns with his clear vision, with his sword drawn, with his verb and his doctrine,” said Chávez in August 1999.

Since the young military man arrived at the public scene after an attempted coup in 1992, his face has been as marked in the minds of Venezuelans as Bolivar’s, and for very similar reasons.

Thanks to his charisma and his constant rejection of the political norms imposed by traditional bipartisanship in Venezuela, Hugo Chavez acquired a media platform that he used to transmit an ideological pastiche that mixed indigenous spiritualism with independence heroism, with Fidel Castro, and with Karl Marx.

For those who knew some history, one thing had nothing to do with the other and seemed like nonsense from a patient escaping from a psychiatric asylum.

For others, and even though the illiteracy rate in Venezuela was only 9.3% for the decade when Chávez came to power, the widespread ignorance in the country was fertile ground for the arrival of a phenomenon that would destroy the so-called Saudi Arabia of America, in a matter of 20 years.

Regardless of the socio-economic stratum, Venezuela was a victim of a Southern Hemisphere country’s fever with a desire to resemble the Northern giant.

It is not surprising then that an ordinary man, a peasant with a dissonant language, made a whole generation of Venezuelans run away in dribs and drabs and find a second home in Miami.

This is not an apology to the revolutionary phenomenon. On the contrary, it is a way of shedding light on a reality that the Venezuelan people carry with them.

That generation that fled the monster created by Hugo Chávez Frías carried in their suitcase the trauma and perennial need for that father-hero that they would eventually find, twenty years later, in Donald J. Trump.

The political macabre

For the Republican candidate in 2016, getting the conservative Latino vote was easy. He just had to point out its weaknesses.

While Cuban Americans only needed someone to attack the Castro regime, impose more restrictions, and promise a country without those other immigrants they have always wanted to distance themselves from, to win over Venezuelans, Donald Trump would only have to flirt with the idea of invading Venezuela or attacking the regime, or both.

And he delivered.

Today, the so-called MAGA-Venezuelans have taken refuge behind the idea of a father savior, a hero, a man, white, and wealthy, who comes to save them from the evil that plagues their land.

Thus, even in the elections of 2020, amid a pandemic and with the regime of Nicolás Maduro more anchored to power than ever, Venezuelan Republicans in the U.S. continued to support President Trump.

On the grayscale

The paradox, evident to many, was that Venezuelan Republicans supported a character so similar to Hugo Chávez, a man who attacked the press, unprepared for the job, and who destroyed with his feet what previous governments had done, for good or ill, with their hands.

When it comes to populism, people don’t seem to understand that there is a grayscale.

It is like those who think that the Bolivarian Revolution was a leftist movement, when, by all accounts, its structure was very similar to that of any far-right dictatorship in Latin America in the 1970s.

Even if Chávez embraced socialist systems of government such as free education and health care these structures existed decades before his rule. It was just a way of stepping into history and rewriting it in his favor.

If the American system were weaker, perhaps Trump could have done the same.

What they both managed, with some skill, was the polarization of their respective countries, bringing together the figure of the hero, the strongman, and savior, who knows better than others how to fix whatever ills the country.

And although millions of Venezuelans seem to be overcoming this oedipal trauma, the reality is that the same germ that gave birth to Hugo Chávez Frías is now disseminated throughout the world, in an ever-faster diaspora, which does not know how to distinguish between historical chapters and the present reality, and which has decided to bite the bullet, far from home.