The Danger of Chavez’s Rhetoric

by Fernanda Lopez:

On the freeway, travelers riding across Caracas’ business district become versed in popular Venezuelan sayings spray-painted on the sides of buildings. Usually, perceptive travelers will be able to discern one prominent expression: “who is to blame?” When President Hugo Chávez reignited his Bolivarian campaign in 2002, the “Who is to blame?” maxim evolved into the catchphrase of his so-called “Bolivarian Revolution.” Also a part of the Bolivarian Revolution, Mision Identidád is President Chávez’s policy to grant citizens a right of entry into Venezuela’s civil registry. An implicit caveat to the project, however, is that registered persons are simultaneously enlisted in the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela, a coalition of political forces supporting the Bolivarian movement.

Subtle coercion works its way into Chávez’s social projects often. His rhetoric has taken advantage of the poor’s desire to advance in society. Forty-nine percent of Venezuelans have said they are seeking opportunities for socioeconomic mobility—in a way, a tacit commitment to Chávez’s Bolivarian doctrine. For, “with Chávez,” one graffitied wall reminds travelers, “the people are the government.” But, with Chávez, recalls another, “you are either with us or against us.”

President Chávez’s charm and his revolution’s popularity in Venezuela hinge on the ambiguity of the term “us.” Indeed, his public speeches invoke images of two countries—one, the Venezuelan aristocracy and the other, the poor—occupying a single state’s territory. Since political oratory in Latin America has long denoted “the people” to mean the poor, the binary statement, “with us or against us,” suggests an exclusionary agenda at the heart of Chávez’s politics. With an “us” meaning the nation’s underprivileged majority rather than the entire population, state propaganda appeals to interclass hostilities. But in obscuring the definition of the “people,” Chávez is also blurring the definition of the “government.”

The answer to the question, “who is to blame?” could not be clearer. By disarming the public with a phantom culprit, Chavista propaganda can go from identifying several scapegoats to even none at all.

Although the president himself alternates between finger-pointing at the United States and at homegrown oligarchs, the dynamics of a government belonging to the people when the “government” and the “people” are themselves phantom words, is dangerous for the president. Occasionally, the anti-Chavista propaganda scrawled on walls mocks Chávez with the same question, “Who is to blame?”

When Venezuela’s people—not Venezuela’s government, but the disillusioned poor themselves—air their grievances, the culprit will no longer be a surreal phantom. Every few months, an economic downtown prompts the people to point their fingers at Chávez. So far, Chávez’s control over the country’s oil deposits has stalled events from escalating into a political crisis. Each time, however, oil deposits approach their natural depletion.

As long as Chávez’s propaganda pits poor against rich, he threatens the nation with an identity crisis that propaganda alone cannot solve.