On Wednesday, the body of Venezuela’s late president, Hugo Chávez, was transported through Caracas in a formal procession that drew a crowd of weeping millions, accustomed to calling him, among other epithets, "the Example of Permanent Battle," and "the Christ of Latin America's Poor." Those that were not openly mourning his passing stayed quietly at home, bunkered with whatever food basics they could hoard before the shops closed, and waited fearfully for what might come next.
Chavistas have set fire to the mattresses and tents that opposition protesters used while chained together to protest his presidency. Sobbing mourners shout: "Are you happy now that he's dead?" Ambulances have been seen and heard throughout Caracas, where a huge section of the downtown area has been cordoned off by security forces. Phone lines are crashing and Internet is down in much of the country. Those that do have phones are afraid to use them, saying that they are tapped and they fear for their safety and are therefore afraid to speak to friends and relatives inside and outside Venezuela who have been critical of Chávez.
His funeral on Friday is widely expected to be a spectacle on a global scale, one to rival that of Eva Perón, which lasted days and drew millions of mourners. The list of attendees will surely include Cuba's Raúl Castro, Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, possibly China's Hu Jintao or Wen Jiabao, as well as Chávez’s Hollywood friends: Danny Glover, Oliver Stone, and Sean Penn. Absent of course will be the Americans, who are clearly persona non grata as evidenced by the expulsion of two military attachés from the U.S. embassy in Caracas just hours before the announcement of the president's death. Regardless of the funeral, chavismo will live on, as peronismo lives on in Argentina half a century after the death of Perón.
So far the government has pledged to uphold democratic institutions in that uniquely surreal Venezuelan way. The armed forces have pledged to stand with the presidential candidate Nicolás Maduro, the hitherto vice president, who in turn has pledged to follow the constitution and hold elections in 30 days. Chavistas may have tolerated an unsworn-in Chávez, who ostensibly ruled from his deathbed, but it is doubtful they will tolerate the same from anyone else, even his anointed successor, Maduro. While the opposition will mount an honorable fight and a sophisticated media campaign that delivers a message of unity and peace, they will simply be outspent, outmanned, and out-propaganded. Maduro will likely be reelected and bear the mantle of the Bolivarian Revolution, assisted by the halo of Hugo.
There is, though, another, darker scenario: if the chavistas feel they will not win the election, there may be a coup by the military to keep themselves in power. In any case, a continuation of the Bolivarian Revolution will serve the interests of the chavistas’ greatest allies, dependants and creditors: China, Russia, Iran, Cuba, the entire ALBA alliance (Nicaragua, Ecuador, Bolivia, and others) and groups such as FARC and Hezbollah, to say nothing of wealthy transnational criminal networks. Domestically, there is a large segment of the population that would rather see the opposition out of power, no matter what the cost. After all, they have already tolerated a gutting of their democracy in favor of occasional handouts. Why not keep the handouts coming?
At his inauguration in January 1999, Chavéz mocked the constitution under which he was being sworn in as “moribund.” He was in fact the man who killed it. Upon taking office he changed the name of the country (from Republic of Venezuela to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela), the constitution, the flag, and even the time zone (by half an hour, so as not to be in the same time zone as any portion of the United States). His greatest legacy, though, is his psychological imprint on millions of people all over the world. When I asked a poor Cuban why he liked Chávez, he answered: “Because he looks like me, he sounds like me, he prays, and he sings.”
Chávez’s career proves that in a rentier state with a paternalistic system one can rule as democratically elected even without democratic institutions, without being sworn in, even unto death. The United States underestimated the power of the chavista political narrative—resentment dressed up as revolution. But it is embraced by many others, especially in Latin America and the Middle East, where Chávez has been hailed as a revolutionary and anti-imperialist hero alongside Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Chávez is dead. Viva la revolución.