THE WORDS THAT DEFINED THE MAN & THE MOVEMENT
The Business of Ruling
April 24th, 2016
On February 4th, 1992, a new figurehead erupted from obscurity to become a Venezuelan hero in a matter of hours. Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias may have failed strategically in an attempt to forcibly overthrow a corrupt government regime, but his speech immediately following the surrender no doubt contributed to his popular election as President of Venezuela seven years later. The young Lieutenant Colonel was not born a political leader. He was raised in the impoverished plains of the llaneros, but Venezuela’s inner turmoil created the context which would call for a socialist leader like Chavez- A man unassociated with traditional politics who represented the collective frustration with inequality between the masses and the elites. From his first address to the last, Chavez’s oratory remains consistent across the two decades he acted as a chief South American political figure. The following discussion will address the patterns in his oratory and performance using videos of five deliveries ranging in date from 1992 to 2012. Rather than focusing on manufacturing an artificial political party, each of Chavez’s speeches serves to extend a relatable community based upon three core pillars: including potential followers, constructing a cause, and framing the opposition.
By the late 1980’s, diminishing oil prices and a severe debt crisis placed a burden on Venezuelan society which depended on the energy market to account for 60% of the national budget. The country had attempted to modernize consumption without diversifying and maximizing production ultimately leading to an unbalanced national economy on the brink of failure. Neoliberal cuts on social welfare spending culminated in the Caracazo riots during the February of 1989 which killed dozens of citizens.. In Electing Chavez: The Business of Anti-neoliberal Politics in Venezuela, Leslie C. Gates expanded three theories which explain why the public was drawn to an untraditional, anti-neoliberal candidate. While she made efforts to delineate between the three, they are hopelessly intertwined, having all been derived from perceptions of governmental corruption and ignorance. President Carlos Andres Perez initiated a democratic government two decades before which was initially a successful solution to an oppressive military regime. However, in the years leading up to the coup, the government had become a “catch all means of explaining a wide range of problems.” The two party system had deteriorated, along with businesses, into a breeding ground for corruption. Politicians were rewarded for conforming to party lines rather than defending constituent preferences. As the social climate grew worse, politicians only became more indifferent resulting in sweeping resentment.
Although he failed in his attempt to overthrow the government, Chavez became a national hero during his surrender. He addressed the public for the first time in a 169 word broadcasted announcement during which he briefly proclaimed that the revolution was defeated, subconsciously adding “for now.” The “Por Ahora” speech launched his political career as reporters, middle class admirers, social leaders, political figureheads, and left-wing intellectuals lined up outside of his prison cell in Cuartel San Carlos prison for a chance to shake his hand. To his own surprise, Chavez had already achieved a followership with a few short words which would define his political image.
Including Potential Followers
In the early days of his fame, it was vital for Hugo Chavez to inspire a followership large enough to leverage for political influence. Similar to early Latin American caudillos, Chavez’s power relied upon the loyalty of supporters because he originally did not have money or hold a political office. His allusions to a common community using inclusive language began in his first address, “Por Ahora”, and continued with every speech thereafter. Chavez began his first public discourse by addressing the people of Venezuela as “comrades.” The vast majority of those watching the broadcast had never even heard of young Chavez. And yet, through rhetoric, he aligned them with his own personal cause by phrasing, “The goals that we had set for ourselves…,” as though it were a collective mission. In doing so, Chavez began to define an imagined community among citizens of Venezuela who were unhappy with the government under Perez. The community of admirers which began to take shape behind Chavez can only be described as imaginary because it was composed of men and women who developed a sense of solidarity despite never knowing one another.
While Seymour Martin Lipset emphasizes poorer communities’ tendency of accepting radical leaders in his theory of fascist development, he overlooks the actions these leaders take to appeal to the people. In this case, Chavez used rhetoric to subtly relate himself to the masses. Collective pronouns establish an invisible community by defining an in-group or out-group status through the use of “we” and “they.” The associations these pronouns create can “influence beliefs about, evaluations of, and behaviors toward other people- often automatically and unconsciously.” The implication of fraternal community helped Chavez unite distinct individuals into a collective identity.
Even once established, Chavez employed inclusive language in order to reinforce the notion that the Venezuelans were a united team. In his last address, he went as far as to claim that the country had fought problems together “as one big family.” When abroad, Chavez used the same collective pronouns to further expand his community of followers. In his first public address in Cuba, he addresses the citizens who had gathered, “Fellow Cuban and Latin American compatriots” and thereby assumes their support for himself and for his proposal for a united Latin America.  The first common dimension in Chavez’s speeches was the effort to define his own ingroup through rhetoric. By constantly addressing viewers as “my friends” and aligning himself with the masses by using the term “we,” Chavez created psychological unity between members of an invisible community who would otherwise have little in common.
The media repeatedly broadcasted “Por Ahora” because of the initial dismay it generated. In his analysis of imagined communities, Benedict Anderson emphasized that the rise of print correlates with the creation of imaginary communities because it sped communication and spread a common language among those who received the information. However, by 1992, video was the newest form of media and it provided the young military rebel with the opportunity to reach Venezuelans directly and instantaneously in their homes. The direct line of contact proved to extend Anderson’s theory by establishing the foundation for an imaginary community within moments of the unifying rhetoric leaving Chavez’s lips. Therefore, two elements collided to create a greater revolution from the first failure- fraternal rhetoric and improved speed of communication. Initially, Hugo Chavez was not allowed to speak live because Perez knew that it would open a direct and dangerous line of communication between the rebel and the people. Perez was wise to be wary because this brief communication with his “comrades” was widely regarded as the point that Chavez transformed from a little-known military rebel to a politician with significant influence over the citizens of Venezuela. The New York Times reported the tension between the international assumption that Hugo Chavez be considered a villain and the fact that the attempted coup was “met with silent cheers from a large part of the population.” The simple use of a collective pronoun awoke the realization in some that they, too, were unsatisfied and that their concerns of corruption and inequality aligned with Chavez’s revolution.
Constructing a Cause
Nationalism is seen as an inevitable element in modernizing nations and Hugo Chavez provided a figure to unite the people. Nationalism is unique compared to other “isms” because its massive political power contrasts the utter lack of required intellectual theory mobilizing it. Therefore, Chavez did not need to define a traditional platform to mobilize the nation and instead removed his cause from political labels altogether. Once armed with a community of followers, Hugo Chavez defined the cause in terms of historical references which gave his movement credibility. During his early political career, Chavez refused to identify himself with either political party because both were associated with wide scale corruption and ineffective policies. He disassociated himself from any label, ambiguously proclaiming, “I, Hugo Chavez, am not a Marxist, but I am also not an anti-Marxist. I am not a Communist, but I am not an anti-Communist either.” Instead, he framed himself with alliances from history, his primary muse being the Latin American hero of unity, Simon Bolivar. By referring to his own movement as the “Bolivarian Revolution,” Chavez aligned his goals with the beloved South American political hero, essentially writing Bolivar’s endorsement of his own campaign. He also gave supporters an easy cause to champion and rally behind.
The immense international recognition and respect for Bolivar helped to make this association a springboard for Chavez as a political leader in foreign nations, as well as Venezuela. While in Cuba, his mentions of the “Bolivarian soldiers of the Venezuelan Army” were met with strong rounds of applause as he sought to expand his followership. Chavez called himself “a soldier of a Latin America fully and forever devoted to the cause of the revolution of this, our, America. A great Bolivarian hug to you all.” Notice, Chavez did not ask for Cubans to join him, but rather spoke as though they already had.
In addition to carving out his place in history next to the most admired figure in Latin American history, Chavez used traditional religious references to provide his mission with a deeper meaning and a higher calling. The most infamous reference occurred throughout his speech to the United Nations which declared George W. Bush the devil. The strong language was received with laughter and applause as Chavez put his goals in a religious context. Although his radical metaphor was written off by the international audience as extreme, it would have appealed to low-income supporters in Venezuela because the poorer classes gravitate toward radical sermons of “hell-fire and salvation.” Religious sectors have also historically provided support to more radical political regimes championing Marxism and Communism. Chavez took advantage of the poor’s tendency to support religious causes by aligning himself with God’s will.
Again, Lipset offers an explanation only of how the people’s decisions are impacted by their own beliefs, but does not detail how a political leader like Chavez wields support through religious dialect. The uneducated, poor classes have a higher affinity for radical religion and a correlated appreciation for extremist politics. The two combine and work together to form a radical, religiously guided political movement. In an analysis of the Nicaraguan Revolution, the authors suggest that religious discourse “has a capacity to promote radical self-understandings and commitment to revolutionary activism.” Religion served to further define the collective identity while also giving the movement a deeper meaning tied to religious philosophies rather than political platforms.
Framing the Opposition
Finally, after constructing a community and a cause through public oratory, Hugo Chavez framed the opposition that fueled his movement. Having an out-group or enemy is a vital concept in sustaining an imaginary community because the very definition implies that not everyone is included. Chavez soon outgrew domestic competition from traditional political candidates and turned to oppose the imperialism of the United States.
He casted the intricacies of international politics in easy to understand, black and white terms. Different levels of analysis are used depending on one’s education and level of investment on the topic. The five year old mindset is the least developed of these and is used when poor education inhibits proper analysis or when the subject is perceived to be unworthy of intellectual effort. Discussing politics with low-status groups faces both predicaments because the quality of education is lower and, in general, they take less of an interest in political dialect. Binary terminology makes complex political, economic, and social issues easily digestible and requires little to no analysis. Through binary terminology that defined his opposition, largely the United States of America, as evil terrorists, Chavez aimed to simplify complex political concepts into easily digestible statements for the Venezuelan and Latin American public. During his address to the United Nations, he defined America as “...the greatest threat looming over our Planet: the hegemonic pretension of the U.S. Imperialism that puts at risk the very survival of humankind itself.” While the speech was largely regarded as a joke in foreign governments, Chavez succeeded in casting the United States as the villain to those within his community.
The words themselves were compounded by his raised voice and cursing which ignited palpable energy in the crowds that watched. Video recordings of Chavez’s speeches show that he was emphatic and that the swelled and calmed in correlation with the tension in his voice. A crowd of Venezuelans reacted with applause and chanting when Chavez began to curse out another country, calling the nation a terrorist and an assassin. Similarly, during the first scene in All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren depicted how a crowd reacts when a populist leader employs strong vocabulary. When Willie Talos called out a heckler with a curse and an insult in the middle of a speech, the crowd met him with laughter and shouts of “You tell ‘em, Willie!” These similar situations point to a pattern evident in populist leaders which shows that a portion of their popularity is rooted in their radical dismissal of the opposition.
The men and women standing in the crowd with Chavez may not have originally agreed or felt as strongly about his violent accusations. However, the collective mind surpasses rational, individual thinking and gives way to instinctual irresponsibility. Sigmund Freud explains that personality vanishes when in a group and “all feelings and thoughts are bent in the direction determined by the hypnotizer.” Chavez builds the crowd’s energy with emphatic oratory which contributes to a mob mentality in which members are more susceptible to his strong opinions. Many of his speeches had a fiery undertone; he used words like “death” constantly to create a frightening aura around his audience. Combined, these elements which might not have had a significant impact on the rational individual, built the wrath of the audience against Chavez’s enemies.
Using specific quotes and reactions from a variety of Hugo Chavez’s speeches, it becomes clear that the focus of the oration was not on any specific policies, as one might expect from a political figure. Instead, used his oratory to create his own community based on continuing Bolivar’s crusade for unity and a mutual hatred of the United States of America. By utilizing inclusive dialect, framing his cause in general, non-partisan terms, and clearly defining his opponent as epitome of evil, Hugo Chavez was able to build and sustain support for over two decades.
The contextual evidence of general feelings of isolation from political leaders became an important aspect in establishing Chavez’s popularity. Seymour Martin Lipset suggests that fascist leaders, like Adolf Hitler, established strong support base among inactive voters. Corruption and general indifference within the Venezuelan government created a solid foundation for a strong, radical figurehead. The tendency of outcast voters to support an outside candidate explains why many Venezuelans’ first reaction to the failed coup was to crown Chavez a “hero.” The analysis clarifies how Hugo Chavez defined a loyal constituency from a nation that was apathetic and removed from the political sphere. However, the question remains, why Chavez, specifically?
If there was a clear craving for change among the people, then why did the political tide not reflect these desires until the days and years after Hugo Chavez’s first efforts? While the politically apathetic are more likely to throw themselves behind a radical movement, they will only do so once the movement has a foothold and is clearly established. The self-efficacy of defeated masses lacks until a leader like Chavez can initiate hope. He may not have won his battle, but he established a military movement that was strong enough for others to support. The subconscious remark that they were only defeated “for now” provided a sense of hope for the future.
In essence, Chavez was the first to embody the image of change and therefore became the figurehead of the movement. Many individuals in Venezuela were eager for change, but without communal unity, they lacked any political or economic leverage over traditionalists. Once they came together under Chavez, they had the power to enforce better social equality. This points to a greater pattern: a successful and enduring imagined community needs to have a leader, a spokesman, a point of unity. All nations are run by a specified set of leaders, but the key is that those in power listen to citizens and keep them content. Otherwise, another person or persons will eventually provide the unity people need and leverage that idle power. Holding the title of the ruler of a country becomes irrelevant if there is not a nation, a true community, united behind it.
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