One is hard-pressed to miss the slogan “With Chávez, the people are the government” in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, stamped as it is on government posters that paper the city. The statement claims the achievement of a perfect democracy and implicitly suggests the opposite: Without President Hugo Chávez, Venezuelan democracy would not exist.
By depicting his rule as nothing less than the true manifestation of popular will, anyone opposed to Chávez’s policies are automatically painted as antidemocratic oppressors. The “with us or against us” binary is a hallmark of government propaganda, which casts legitimate democratic dissent as subversive.
A key aspect of government propaganda is the association of Chávez with the struggle for Venezuelan independence. His administration calls itself the “Bolívarian government” after revered independence hero Simón Bolívar. And in April the government celebrated the “Week of Caracas – Insurgent City” to commemorate two important dates in Venezuela’s fight for independence. The first is April 19, 1810, when Venezuelans ousted the colonial governor in Caracas initiating the country’s fight toward an independent republic. The second date is April 13, 2002, the day Chávez was reinstated as president following mass protests against a short-lived coup.
The association of Chávez’s return to power with the event that sparked independence from Spain is further conveyed by an exhibition at the government’s Historical Museum of Popular Power that features a photographic recounting of the coup alongside images of Bolívar and other independence heroes.
Unlike these past heroes though, Chávez is not represented as simply another step in the fight for freedom and justice, but rather as the expression of their full realization. A separate exhibit in the museum, for example, details three important uprisings against what it calls “corrupt” governments that “saw the people as a simple, malleable instrument.” These uprisings, it claims, constitute a single process that “culminated” in 1999 when “Hugo Chávez took the reins of the Republic for the first time.” The current president is cast as the endpoint in the long history of Venezuela’s struggle against oppression.
The exhibit calls the April 2002 coup attempt “a disruptive act of transnational fascism.” The juxtaposition of the coup with that of Venezuela’s fight for independence furthers the notion of the opposition as a foreign threat by connecting it to European colonialism. Furthermore, Chávez continuously links U.S. imperialism to the motives of the opposition, aided in part by the funding of some opposition groups by USAID and the congressionally funded U.S. National Endowment for Democracy.
The portrayals serve to blur the lines between legitimate homegrown dissent and foreign intervention in Venezuelan politics. As mentioned above, some opposition groups have undeniable connections to international enemies of the Chávez administration, but the government misleadingly extends this influence to all forms of dissent. Representing the opposition as a foreign entity is, in fact, a critical element of the chavista propaganda binary and completes the antithetical positioning of the two sides: Those who oppose the government are not only antidemocratic; they are also not truly Venezuelan.
Often times the casting of the opposition as not a part of Venezuelan society is accomplished by simply ignoring its existence. For example, a large banner currently hanging in the capital district of Caracas reads, “For the Television that we deserve. No to the Concession [of RCTV].” The banner clearly does not speak for the millions of Venezuelans against the government’s non-renewal of the television station’s broadcasting license—70% according to a recent survey. Chávez negated the legitimacy of widespread student protests against the move, claiming the students were being “manipulated” by the opposition, which he called an “enemy of the homeland.”
Other comments make the effect of such an exclusionary statement more clear. Early on in his presidency, Chávez labeled opponents of a plan to construct power lines in the southeast of the country “traitors, spies, and foreigners.” It mattered little that those against the plan were environmentalists and indigenous groups; the salient factor was simply their opposition. Using words such as “traitors” and “spies” connotes the supposed foreignness of those working against government policies, which are represented to be in the interests of all Venezuelans.
The end result of this dichotomy is that dissent becomes antidemocratic, for it inevitably opposes a government that claims to be the manifestation of true democracy. As protests continue throughout Venezuela, however, it is clear that many see things differently.
Eric Biewener is a freelance writer based in Caracas and the author of two blogs, Custodians of History and Gringo in the Periphery.