MADRID – “How difficult it is to die!” Francisco Franco is reputed to have exclaimed on his deathbed. Death, it seems, is always particularly difficult for autocrats to manage, even when they succeed in dying of natural causes.
A dictator’s death throes are always a form of theater, featuring ecstatic masses, would-be successors fighting for political survival, and, behind the scenes, the dictator’s coterie locked in efforts to extend the life of their patriarch until they can secure their privileges. Franco’s son-in-law, who was also the family doctor, kept the dying despot on life-support machines for more than a month.
It is not exactly clear how long Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez was actually dead before his passing was officially announced. Buying time to secure their own political future, Venezuelan officials carefully stage-managed Chávez’s illness and eventual death, even suggesting near the end, while he was undergoing complex and agonizing cancer treatments, that he was still “walking and exercising.” The information vacuum was reminiscent of the secrecy surrounding the deaths of Stalin and Mao, and the practice in the Ottoman empire of keeping the sultan’s death a secret for weeks until the succession was settled.
The emotional manipulation of the mise-en-scene surrounding Chávez’s death appears certain to translate into electoral support for his grey successor, Nicolás Maduro. But will this suffice to create a Chávista lineage?
In Argentina, despite the disaster of Juan Perón’s return to power in 1973, after an 18-year exile, Perónism was reincarnated in the 1980’s in the presidency of Carlos Saúl Menem, and again with the arrival of President Néstor Kirchner and, later, his wife, current President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Fernández’s melodramatic speeches are a transparent attempt to elevate her late husband to saintly status, just as Perón elevated his wife, Evita, to sainthood. Upon taking office, she swore allegiance not only to the constitution, but to “Him” (Kirchner) as well.
Unlike mere mortals, dictators do have a good chance of enjoying an afterlife. In ancient Egypt, deceased Pharaohs were embalmed and deified. After Augustus, the first Roman princeps, the Senate could vote deceased emperors into divine status. Such an apotheosis, of course, served the political interests of the emperor’s successors, who could claim a godly lineage while aspiring to be raised to godlike status themselves.
Chávez excelled in ridiculing his political enemies, but he was too much of a narcissist to approach the end with the kind of humor that, according to Suetonius, inspired Emperor Vespasian’s deathbed quip: “Oh dear, I must be turning into a God.” The grotesque idea of embalming Chávez’s body was finally discarded precisely because of the damage suffered by the corpse during its display to the masses in a chaotic exercise in political manipulation.
A god, certainly not, but a saint, perhaps. Indeed, what was good enough for “Santa Evita,” as the Argentine writer Tomás Eloy Martínez called her, might be good enough for Chávez. Like the dying tyrant in Gabriel García Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch, who righteously lamented the fate that would befall the poor after his passing, Chávez will remain for years to come the saintly benefactor, martyr, and redeemer of the destitute in the eyes of the Venezuelan masses. Indeed, he is likely to achieve the kind of immortality that he always believed he deserved.
Part of the legend is almost invariably the mystery surrounding the circumstances of the leader’s death. An ordinary, natural death does not accord with the superhero image of the patriarch fighting the nation’s enemies. Maduro’s conspiracy theory that his mentor’s cancer was the result of poisoning by “the dark forces that wanted him out of the way” is not particularly original, though it does raise the stakes. Chávez himself always maintained that his idol, Simón Bolívar, was poisoned by his enemies in Colombia in 1830.
History, more imaginary than real, offers Maduro a score of additional examples. Was Napoleon slowly poisoned by arsenic during his exile in St. Helena? Did Lenin die of syphilis, a massive stroke, or poisoning by Stalin? Given the bizarre circumstances of Stalin’s own death, was he poisoned by his secret police chief, Lavrentiy Beria, or perhaps by his archenemy, Yugoslavia’s Josip Broz Tito? Did “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il suffer a heart attack in bed, or, more nobly, on a train trip while working for the welfare of his beloved people? Allegations of poisoning by the wicked imperialists are, of course, a feature of the official Kim death story.
Maduro himself invoked the rumor that the Israelis poisoned former Palestinian President Yasser Arafat. He could just as well refer to Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, who dropped dead of a heart attack in 1970; Nasser’s confidant, the journalist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, always maintained that the president had been poisoned by his deputy and successor, Anwar El Sadat.
Although Chávez’s legend may survive, Chávismo probably will not, for it is not truly a doctrine, but a sentiment based on the rejection of the old political order and the invention of enemies. It lacks the solid foundations of, say, Perónism, an inclusive movement that relied on a traditionally well-organized working class and a nationalistic bourgeoisie. Chávismo, apart from its reliance on charismatic leadership, has never amounted to more than a social program hitched to an oil bonanza.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2013.