Portraying Hugo Chavez as Christ

At First Things, Lisa Carroll-Davis recently described the Venezuelan president’s striking language about his predecessor Hugo Chávez on the one-year anniversary of his death: “Christ the Redeemer became flesh, became spirit, became truth in Chávez” and was “the Christ of the poor, the Christ of the humble, he who came to protect those who have had nothing.”

This was hardly an isolated incident:

The social unrest and economic privation that spilled out in protests in February 2014 were met by Venezuela’s leaders with redoubled proclamations of Chavista messianism. During the height of the protests, in a speech made March 5, 2014 at a military parade in Caracas marking the one year anniversary of Chávez’s death, Maduro proclaimed, Chávez “the Redeemer of the poor” and said that the poor were calling to Chávez the “Redeeming Christ of the 21st Century” to help them against the capitalist protestors attempting to undo all he had done for the poor….

In Venezuela, the conflation of politician and messiah have saturated the popular culture, as not only are the leftist political actors making statements exalting the deceased Chávez as Christ, the average citizens venerate the former president. Immediately after his passing in March 2013, public processions honoring Chávez included his supporters carrying posters of him and Jesus together. There were reports and pictures of widespread household altars to Chávez, with an effigy or image of him replacing Christ on the cross. Presenting Chávez as the messiah is not merely a convenient rhetorical trope for the ruling party. It is a sentiment that has been internalized and codified by those who supported him. What otherwise would be considered unorthodox, or at least heterodox, has become fully acceptable to a largely Catholic population.

Carroll-Davis puts this devotion to Chavez in the context of the Latin American Left and liberation theology.

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8 comments

  1. My first thought was to compare it to Obama and black liberation theology in the US, but, wow, it’s fascinating where Lisa Carroll-Davis ended up!

    Namely, she’s suggesting that the election of Pope Francis and his socialist rhetoric are intended to recapture South America from liberation theology.

    Maybe it will dislodge those peoples from the religious hook of the economic trap they are in and capitalism could thereby enter through the backdoor. Embrace and redirect? I’m curious to see what becomes of it.

  2. I haven’t necessarily heard anything socialist from Pope Francis, but I also haven’t read anything by him that closely. How do you see him as socialist?

  3. Pope Francis speaks in generalities without resolving practical contradictions, so the extent of his meaning may be debated, but he uses socialist triggers such as trickle-down economics, (re-)distribution of income, the inherent injustice of economic inequality and exclusion, etc. to blame capitalism and appeal to politicians for remedies. Overall, he seems to have a socialistic understanding and perspective of capitalism.

    His apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium contains a bunch of this:

    No to an economy of exclusion

    53. Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.

    Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers”.

    54. In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.

    No to the new idolatry of money

    55. One cause of this situation is found in our relationship with money, since we calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies. The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person! We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.

    56. While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules. Debt and the accumulation of interest also make it difficult for countries to realize the potential of their own economies and keep citizens from enjoying their real purchasing power. To all this we can add widespread corruption and self-serving tax evasion, which have taken on worldwide dimensions. The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.

    No to a financial system which rules rather than serves

    57. Behind this attitude lurks a rejection of ethics and a rejection of God. Ethics has come to be viewed with a certain scornful derision. It is seen as counterproductive, too human, because it makes money and power relative. It is felt to be a threat, since it condemns the manipulation and debasement of the person. In effect, ethics leads to a God who calls for a committed response which is outside the categories of the marketplace. When these latter are absolutized, God can only be seen as uncontrollable, unmanageable, even dangerous, since he calls human beings to their full realization and to freedom from all forms of enslavement. Ethics – a non-ideological ethics – would make it possible to bring about balance and a more humane social order. With this in mind, I encourage financial experts and political leaders to ponder the words of one of the sages of antiquity: “Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs”.{[55]}

    58. A financial reform open to such ethical considerations would require a vigorous change of approach on the part of political leaders. I urge them to face this challenge with determination and an eye to the future, while not ignoring, of course, the specifics of each case. Money must serve, not rule! The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor. I exhort you to generous solidarity and to the return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favours human beings.

    No to the inequality which spawns violence

    59. Today in many places we hear a call for greater security. But until exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples are reversed, it will be impossible to eliminate violence. The poor and the poorer peoples are accused of violence, yet without equal opportunities the different forms of aggression and conflict will find a fertile terrain for growth and eventually explode. When a society – whether local, national or global – is willing to leave a part of itself on the fringes, no political programmes or resources spent on law enforcement or surveillance systems can indefinitely guarantee tranquility. This is not the case simply because inequality provokes a violent reaction from those excluded from the system, but because the socioeconomic system is unjust at its root. Just as goodness tends to spread, the toleration of evil, which is injustice, tends to expand its baneful influence and quietly to undermine any political and social system, no matter how solid it may appear. If every action has its consequences, an evil embedded in the structures of a society has a constant potential for disintegration and death. It is evil crystallized in unjust social structures, which cannot be the basis of hope for a better future. We are far from the so-called “end of history”, since the conditions for a sustainable and peaceful development have not yet been adequately articulated and realized.

    60. Today’s economic mechanisms promote inordinate consumption, yet it is evident that unbridled consumerism combined with inequality proves doubly damaging to the social fabric. Inequality eventually engenders a violence which recourse to arms cannot and never will be able to resolve. It serves only to offer false hopes to those clamouring for heightened security, even though nowadays we know that weapons and violence, rather than providing solutions, create new and more serious conflicts. Some simply content themselves with blaming the poor and the poorer countries themselves for their troubles; indulging in unwarranted generalizations, they claim that the solution is an “education” that would tranquilize them, making them tame and harmless. All this becomes even more exasperating for the marginalized in the light of the widespread and deeply rooted corruption found in many countries – in their governments, businesses and institutions – whatever the political ideology of their leaders.

    […]

    The economy and the distribution of income

    202. The need to resolve the structural causes of poverty cannot be delayed, not only for the pragmatic reason of its urgency for the good order of society, but because society needs to be cured of a sickness which is weakening and frustrating it, and which can only lead to new crises. Welfare projects, which meet certain urgent needs, should be considered merely temporary responses. As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills.

    203. The dignity of each human person and the pursuit of the common good are concerns which ought to shape all economic policies. At times, however, they seem to be a mere addendum imported from without in order to fill out a political discourse lacking in perspectives or plans for true and integral development. How many words prove irksome to this system! It is irksome when the question of ethics is raised, when global solidarity is invoked, when the distribution of goods is mentioned, when reference in made to protecting labour and defending the dignity of the powerless, when allusion is made to a God who demands a commitment to justice. At other times these issues are exploited by a rhetoric which cheapens them. Casual indifference in the face of such questions empties our lives and our words of all meaning. Business is a vocation, and a noble vocation, provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life; this will enable them truly to serve the common good by striving to increase the goods of this world and to make them more accessible to all.

    204. We can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market. Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth: it requires decisions, programmes, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality. I am far from proposing an irresponsible populism, but the economy can no longer turn to remedies that are a new poison, such as attempting to increase profits by reducing the work force and thereby adding to the ranks of the excluded.

    205. I ask God to give us more politicians capable of sincere and effective dialogue aimed at healing the deepest roots – and not simply the appearances – of the evils in our world! Politics, though often denigrated, remains a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity, inasmuch as it seeks the common good.{[174]} We need to be convinced that charity “is the principle not only of micro-relationships (with friends, with family members or within small groups) but also of macro-relationships (social, economic and political ones)”.{[175]} I beg the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor! It is vital that government leaders and financial leaders take heed and broaden their horizons, working to ensure that all citizens have dignified work, education and healthcare. Why not turn to God and ask him to inspire their plans? I am firmly convinced that openness to the transcendent can bring about a new political and economic mindset which would help to break down the wall of separation between the economy and the common good of society.

    206. Economy, as the very word indicates, should be the art of achieving a fitting management of our common home, which is the world as a whole. Each meaningful economic decision made in one part of the world has repercussions everywhere else; consequently, no government can act without regard for shared responsibility. Indeed, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find local solutions for enormous global problems which overwhelm local politics with difficulties to resolve. If we really want to achieve a healthy world economy, what is needed at this juncture of history is a more efficient way of interacting which, with due regard for the sovereignty of each nation, ensures the economic well-being of all countries, not just of a few.

    Hot Air also nicely collected excerpts from some articles responding to the Evangelii Gaudium.

    And more recently in May, addressing the UN:

    A contribution to this equitable development will also be made both by international activity aimed at the integral human development of all the world’s peoples and by the legitimate redistribution of economic benefits by the State, as well as indispensable cooperation between the private sector and civil society.

  4. I finally read your comment. Thanks for the extended quote. My first thought is that, as far as I understand the history, the prevailing models in Latin America have almost always involved domination of the many by the few, in ways that almost make a Marxist analysis make sense. To oversimplify things, the Spanish and Portuguese set up systems shaped by feudal assumptions where the many labor for a privileged few, who get to have the system work for them. That carried over into systems supposedly based on classical liberalism too, where the promotion of individual economic freedom really meant that there was profit for the well-connected and exploitation for the workers. These systems also tended to be dominated by white elites, and thus for many people, economic liberalism is identified with crony capitalism

    Economic nationalism — import-substitution industrialization, nationalization of industries and resources, worker-rights legislation, etc. — was seen as the answer, and seems to have acquired a deep hold on the popular political consciousness. This is justice, and neoliberal cuts to that system are injustice.

    I wonder if the reason that these sentiments tend to have more of a constituency in Latin America and Europe is that modern capitalism did tend to grow up with the US, while it was seen as causing wrenching change in traditional societies in Europe and Latin America. Hence the hatred for neoliberalism and austerity. Sometimes, neoliberalism has been just crony capitalism in a new guise, like the selling off of Bolivia’s water to a private company, as we talked about before. This Peter Leithart post made an interesting point on this topic: http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/leithart/2014/08/water-for-sale.

  5. Thanks for the historical summary and connecting the dots, Scott! That makes a lot of sense. I think you are right.

    I see a loose parallel to the prevalent belief that US healthcare was a free market which was failing, thereby justifying government control, when in fact the government had been price fixing, regulating, favoring employers and insurance companies, etc. The influence of government can be so subtle, pervasive, and complex that people are blind to it.

    Plus, most people simply do not know what capitalism means, so they look at claims of “capitalism” and react to that (e.g. Bolivia). But that is like looking at countries with the words “democratic” and “republic” in them and concluding that that must be democracy! 🙂

    Leithart matches my reaction well. Moreover, for every challenge, we may solve it by force or by voluntary cooperation. The fact that a problem was solved by government does not imply that that was the best or only way. Plus, municipalities are far closer to the individual than state or federal government.

    What do you make of Leithart’s view of water, etc. as “universal gifts from heaven, provided by a generous Creator for the common benefit of all human beings”? I’m not sure how to politically interpret that. It brings to my mind the tragedy of the commons and I’m not sure how it improves matters over positive “rights”. Maybe he’s implying individual moral obligation as opposed to law?

    “Our Chavez, who art in heaven, the Earth, the sea, and we, delegates, hallowed be thy name. Thy legacy come, so we can spread it to people here and elsewhere. Give us this day light to guide us,” she said in front of Chavez’s image. […] “Lead us not into the temptation of capitalism; deliver us from the evil of oligarchy, like the crime of contraband, because ours is the homeland, peace, and life. Forever and ever. Amen. Viva Chavez!” she exclaimed to applause.

    Wow. 🙂 I don’t get the impression that the Catholic Church legally opposes this free speech, so good on them for standing up to this. You’d think Venezuela was a paradise given such voluntary deification. The comments to that post are similarly fascinating.

  6. Leithart’s suggestion is vague, but I imagine that since he believes in private property he would argue that people have a right to appropriate those gifts by their labor, but that their “individual moral obligations” under God remain. So while one work to hoard or ruin resources, those things would violate the love of neighbor. I don’t know where the line would be where the government’s punitive force would spring into action.

    • Yeah, that sounds most consistent with his position in that article, but as you imply, that would politically emphasize private property rights in cases of hoarding or ruining resources, which he oddly doesn’t mention. I wonder about his “line”, too. Perhaps he left it open because he isn’t quite sure yet.

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