The Cult Following of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez

Vice President Nicolas Maduro addressed Chavez supporters on Thursday (Fernando Llano/AP Photo)

According to Straka, the portrayal of Chávez as a mythical figure also grew as the former military commander found a way to survive unforeseen political challenges, like a coup attempt in April 2002. Straka couldn´t avoid drawing the parallels between this event, and the passion of Christ.

"On the 3rd day (after the coup attempt) Chávez came back, descending from heaven on a helicopter, at a moment when it looked like he had been vanquished," Straka said. "Events like this one make some people believe that he has some sort of privileged relationship with Providence."

Not all academics back the view that in Venezuela government agencies have created a cult of personality towards Chávez. George Ciccariello-Maher, a political science professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia, argues that Chávez is wildly popular because he has created a political system which provides direct benefits to the poor, like the subsidized supermarkets mentioned by the man who wanted to "donate his heart" to Chávez during Thursday´s rally.

Ciccariello-Maher, who is about to publish a book on the rise of socialism in Venezuela, also argues that the Chávez government has expanded opportunities for the poor to directly participate in government, through mechanisms like grassroots councils and communes.

"Chávez is a person that in some way embodies an entirely new system of government, so I think it is entirely natural that people would identify with him in a number of ways," Ciccariello-Maher said.

And the "we are Chávez," slogans?

Ciccariello-Maher sees this, not as a sign that people have been indoctrinated but, as a sign that people want to help run Venezuela. When people are saying they are Chávez, it just means that they also want to take the reins of democracy, like the president.

Chavez´s popularity probably arises from a mix of Ciccariello-Maher's and Straka's explanations. It certainly appears that way when one considers that since the socialist leader has been battling cancer in Cuba, the Venezuelan government has been keen to keep his image present in people´s minds through ads and events like the one staged on Thursday.

One masterfully edited video, which is now broadcast on Venezuelan State TV several times per day, mixes images of Chavez with pictures of historical greats like John Lennon, Abraham Lincoln and Albert Einstein. A poem about utopias is recited in the video and it´s followed by a recording of Chavez´s voice.

"I demand absolute loyalty," the video says over a series of pictures of Chávez´s life. "Because I am not an individual, I am a people, damn it!"

During Thursday´s event in Caracas Vice President Nicolas Maduro peppered his speech with references to Chávez, thanking the comandante for what he had done for the Venezuelan people and what he had taught them. At one point, when the crowd started a chant that said "El Pueblo Con Maduro" The people stand with Maduro, Chávez´s handpicked successor, quickly changed it to a more traditional Chavista battle call. "U, A, Chavez No Se Va!" Chávez is not leaving, Maduro chanted. The crowd quickly followed his lead.

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