Some have taken me to task for being too eager to announce Hugo Chavez’ membership in the Junior Dictators Club. After all, he’s just trying to help the people of Venezuela and if he’s taken away free speech, judicial independence, rendered the legislature meaningless, shut down or intimidated the press and turned the schools into indoctrination centers, it’s all been done with the best intentions. He may have complete autocratic power, a growing military and designs on his neighbors, but at least he hasn’t tried to raise himself up like a larger than life figure and create a cult of personality. That’s one of the things which really set dictators like Mussolini, Hitler, Lennin and Mao apart from more reasonable autocrats.
Oh wait, I spoke too soon. Apparently Chavez’ cult of personality is well developed and even extends beyond the borders of Venezuela. We’ve seen some of his posturing and demagoguery here in the US when he’s addressed the UN and made special deals to provide cheap heating oil to the poor of the northeastern states to demonstrate his largesse. He’s a man of big gestures and big words and like Lenin and Stalin and Hitler before him he’s not averse to appearing in the occasional really large poster with a flashy uniform and a raised fist.
In a practice unpleasantly reminiscent of what I saw way too much of when I lived in Soviet Russia, Chavez has become disturbingly fond of decorating the walls and roadsides of Venezuela with his giant inflated head, often accompanied by nationalistic slogans. He certainly already has his fanatical followers around the world in whose eyes he can do no wrong, and self-promotion like this is designed to instill that same sort of fanaticism in his country’s population. The goal is to make the people look to him as father, mother and symbol of nationalism, and come to believe that only through his largesse will they be safe and provided for.
The promotion of a cult of personality is peculiarly characteristic of the egoism which is at the core of those who believe that they can decide better for others how to live their lives than they can for themselves. It suggests a monumental arrogance and overweening pride, the kind which can promise to rule over a thousand year reich or convert the whole world to a monolithic ideology. It’s either used to cynically manipulate the people, or becomes a symbol of the mental illness which grows from believing your own press releases.
It’s a disease, and there’s no question that Chavez is thoroughly infected. Just look at the accompanying images taken from roadside signs, banners at speeches and walls all over Venezuela. Anyone who likes to see their head in profile 30 feet high has a serious ego problem. His physical presence doesn’t even seem to be adequate for his needs. Whenever he speaks he likes to have a giant banner with his inflated image posing behind him.
Chavez has even begun exporting his cult around the world. Posters of Chavez with arabic slogans have become quite popular in Iran and in Southern Lebanon and other areas controlled by Iranian-backed Hezbollah, whose bizarre mixture of socialism and Islam seems strangely compatible with Chavez’ messianic cult of aboriginal socialism. It’s a tribute to the strange solidarity of socialist autocracy and terrorist zealotry.
The middle east isn’t the only place you’ll find giant images of Chavez. Anywhere socialism thrives on the backs of the oppressed people you’ll find his giant inflated head gazing down on you or a picture of him in uniform with his arm around the local despot. Given all that Castro owes Chavez for underwriting his tottering regime, it’s not surprising that the streets of Havana are heavily papered with Chavez posters. And Chavez does have an imposing visage, with much of the same monolithic grandeur which Mussolini presented to his adoring fans.
If all of this isn’t enough, we know that Chavez has truly become larger than life, at least in his own imagination, because in Venezuela they’re selling Hugo Chavez action figures in the street markets, including versions in several different uniforms, with jointed limbs so that he can assume the same dynamically macho poses seen in his posters, raised clenched fist and all. If you’ve got an action figure you really have arrived as a figure of cultlike adoration. Chavez is famous for deriding American pop culture icons like Superman, yet he seems more than eager to join their ranks as an action figure. He claims Venezuela doesn’t need Superman, presumably because they have Chavez to be their superhoro instead.
Many would suggest that the need to see yourself depicted as a giant means you are compensating for some personal feeling of inadequacy, but it’s just as likely that the whole drive to become an autocrat originates in some deep personal insecurity. Napoleon was short. Hitler had doubts about his virilit. Mussolini may have been molested as a child. In each case something drove them on to their success over the trampled rights and bodies of others. Chavez clearly shares the personality type. The evidence of it is plastered all over the walls of Caracas and on billboards along the bumpy highways of Venezuela.
The signs are all there. What more will it take for people to admit what Chavez is?