CARACAS -- Last July, when Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was being treated for an undisclosed type of cancer, he announced on his 57th birthday that he had changed the slogan defining his Bolivarian Revolution. Until then, soldiers were required to salute their superiors with "Motherland, socialism, or death." Standing next to his daughters on the balcony of the Miraflores Palace, the president's official workplace in Caracas, and wearing a yellow shirt instead of his trade mark red, he proclaimed, "We have to live, and we have to come out victorious. That's why I propose a new slogan. There's no death here. There's life." Then thrusting his left fist into the air, he shouted, "Socialist motherland and victory, we will live, and we will come out victorious." His followers responded to the new salute with a mass ovation.
Chavez's decision to change this slogan as a result of his cancer diagnosis reveals the depth of his regime's personal nature. He is the champion of his own political movement, a superhero, capable of emerging victorious from any battle, even against cancer. He is the charismatic leader whose personality and words define the revolution itself--regarded by his followers as endowed with heroic, even supernatural, powers and qualities. The ubiquitous display of his image, on television and billboards across the country, fosters a cult of personality. Chavez is the revolution.
In this respect, Chavez draws heavily from his friend and mentor Fidel Castro, whose image is often displayed in public places and official events in Cuba. In fact, Chavez's original slogan "Motherland, socialism, or death" combines Fidel Castro's 1960s motto "Motherland or death" with Che Guevara's "Socialism or death." Chavez has openly acknowledged Castro's influence on him several times. The relationship between the two leaders dates back to 1994, when Chavez was a lieutenant colonel who had just been released from prison following a failed coup d'etat in 1992 against Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez.
On December 14 1994, five years before becoming president of Venezuela, Chavez was invited to Cuba and was greeted on the tarmac by Castro himself. In an emotional speech at the University of Havana, Chavez spoke about having been influenced by the writings from the Cuban revolution, several of which he had re-read while in prison: "Cuba is a bastion of Latin American dignity, so as such we have to look at it, as such we have to follow it, as such we have to feed it." In the same speech, he also made a clear reference to his lifelong commitment to the revolutionary route: "This is the first time that I physically come here ... because we have been here many times in our dreams, we soldiers of the Bolivarian army, who decided years ago to give our lives to a revolutionary and transformational project."
Castro's influence on Chavez's discourse is evident in their similar rhetorical strategies. Both use expressions which connote grandeur when talking about their revolutions; they use words and phrases that give their rhetoric a tone of familiarity; and both refer often to historical figures to legitimize their projects. Both leaders are masters of military metaphors. Chavez and Castro are messianic leaders with extraordinary rhetorical abilities, capable of speaking nonstop for hours on end without losing their enthusiasm. For decades, before becoming ill, Castro delivered marathon speeches, sometimes for up to seven hours. Early this year, in his annual speech before the National Assembly, Chavez delivered the longest address in that venue by any Venezuelan president--a mind-numbing nine hours and 27 minutes, interrupted only by a handful of comments and questions, largely from the few opposition deputies.
Like Castro, who was once called "politics' latest superstar" by former Le Monde Diplomatique editor Ignacio Ramonet, Chavez presents himself not only as a revolutionary, but also as an international celebrity. He has his own television and radio show, Hello President, which airs every Sunday, often lasting six hours of more, depending on his mood. He discusses current events, politics, and history; tells stories; interacts with a live audience; and takes phone calls. He speaks in colloquial language, sings popular tunes, and even dances. His star status also involves meeting with celebrities attracted by his leftist, anti-American stance. Chavez has hosted Hollywood actors like Sean Penn, Kevin Spacey, and Danny Glover and was interviewed by supermodel Naomi Campbell. Oscar-winning director Oliver Stone featured him in his 2009 film South of the Border, a documentary examining Chavez's portrayal in the media. The Venezuelan president has walked the red carpet at the Venice Film Festival and is followed by over 2.5 million people on Twitter.
All this is accompanied, however, by an all but total control over the media that he has used to cement his hold on power and smother any serious opposition during his 13-year reign. In 2007, RCTV, a network that ranked among the most critical of Chavez's administration, was taken off the airas the government refused to renew the channel's terrestrial license. In 2009, 34 radio stations critical of Chavez's administration were silenced for "failing to hand in their registration papers on time." According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Venezuela's airwaves between 1999 and 2010 were interrupted by 1,300 hours of cadenas--presidential speeches and propaganda messages that by law all national radio and TV channels must broadcast. In 2010, six cable TV channels were taken off the air for refusing to transmit cadenas, which often last several hours and showcase Chavez proclaiming the achievements of his government. Last year, Globovision, the last Venezuelan television broadcaster openly critical of Chavez's administration, was fined $2.2 million (7.5 percent of its gross income) for alleged violations of Venezuela's new "media responsibility" laws, passed by presidential decree in 2010.
As well as using the media as a vehicle for his formidable rhetorical skills, Chavez has followed in Castro's footsteps by seeking direct control over the airwaves. In 2007, after shuttering RCTV, Chavez launched an $800 million partnership with Cuba to develop RCTV's broadcast spectrum under state control and to develop more state media outlets supportive...