Civil Religion and the Transfer of Charismatic Authority in Venezuela

Hugo Pérez Hernáiz and David Smilde

As the procession of thousands of supporters carrying Chávez’s remains progressed slowly through Caracas streets on Wednesday, March 6, the President of the National Assembly Diosdado Cabello tweeted that he could hear the people chanting ¡Chávez al Panteón, al lado de Simón! (“Chávez to the Pantheon, next to Simón [Bolívar]”). He added that “the voice of the people is the voice of God” and that the National Assembly would do everything to fulfill its wishes. PSUV leader Freddy Bernal also tweeted that his party would ask the National Assembly to amend Article 187 of the Constitution which states that the honor of resting at the National Pantheon can only be awarded after 25 years of the death of eminent Venezuelans.

All modern nation-states have a civil religion with rituals and places that re-enact and house the sacred; that is what makes them nation-states rather than just states. The National Pantheon, the “most elevated altar of the Venezuelan fatherland,” is the spiritual epicenter of Venezuela’s civil religion. It is a relatively small neo-baroque building in the northern part of downtown Caracas built by President Guzmán Blanco at the end of the Nineteenth Century. It houses the remains of illustrious Venezuelans, from politicians to artist, but the place of honor is the tomb of Simón Bolívar, Venezuela´s independence hero. Indeed the placing of the remains of Bolívar in the Pantheon in 1876 by Antonio Guzmán Blanco, and the patriotic rituals that surrounded that event, has been considered by Venezuelan historians as the beginning of a long process of “deification” of the national hero during the twentieth century. An extensive academic literature in Venezuela (philosopher Luís Castro Leiva, historian Germán Carrera Damas, writer Ana Teresa Torres, among others) claims that political appropriation of the Bolívar trade mark, both by the right and by the left, has amounted to a “cult of Bolívar” in Venezuela.

Chávez, steeped as most Venezuelans in the “cult of Bolívar,” thought the modest National Pantheon unworthy of the remains of the hero. December 17, 2012 was to be the date of inauguration of a new bigger, modern style mausoleum at the back of the Pantheon. The event of moving the tomb of Bolívar from the Pantheon to the crypt of the new mausoleum would have probably been a patriotic ritual of great significance for Chávez, but his health deteriorated at the time and most government acts had to be suspended.

But all of Wednesday’s calls for Chávez to be elevated to the highest altar of the fatherland on the fast-track were overshadowed on Thursday by Vice President Nicolas Maduro. Addressing the crowd outside the Military Museum, where Chávez remains are being visited by thousands of Venezuelans waiting in long lines to pay their last respects, Maduro announced that “it has been decided that the remains of the Comandante-Presidente will be prepared and embalmed so that the people can have him there, in his Museum of the Revolution. Like Ho-Chi Ming, like Lenin, like Mao Tse Tung, the body of our Commander in Chief will remain embalmed, so that he can rest in a crystal coffin.”

What from the outside seems like a surprising anachronism makes perfect sense in the context of the symbolic importance of Chávez death for the coming elections. Indeed, the transfer of charismatic authority after the death of a charismatic leader is one of the classic problems of politics. When a leader’s power is based not only on the powers of state but on people’s perceptions of exceptional powers and abilities, how can his followers carry on the movement? One way is through slow institutionalization in preparation for the transfer of power. However, Chávez worked, during most of his presidency, against such institutionalization and actively marginalized emerging leaders around him. Only in December when the end was looming did he designate a successor. But the relatively clumsy succession to Maduro over the past few months clearly had not received a lot of planning.

Now Maduro, Cabello and other leaders of Chavismo are faced with the dilemma of seeing how they can get Chávez’s charisma to transfer to them. Embalming Chávez is one part of their answer. The greater Chavez’s sacred presence, the more Maduro’s leadership can benefit from its sacred glow. 

Pollster Luis Vicente Leon actually predicted months ago that Chávez´s funeral would be an apotheosis of a cult of leadership. Maduro has also declared that the mourning wake will now extend to Friday 11th. If he could, he would probably like to extend it up to election-day. Short of this we can expect, between now and the elections, legislative sessions debating the modification of constitutional Article 187 (perhaps as a referendum attached to the presidential election). The goal is to maintain attention on Chávez and not his successors.