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Speak ill of the dead: A year after his death, Chavez is still wrecking Venezuela

Peter Wilson in Foreign Policy:

Speak Ill of the Dead

A year after his death, Hugo Chávez is still wrecking Venezuela. Why won’t his opponents just say it?


The late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has proved as divisive in death as he was in life. At a military parade in central Caracas commemorating the one-year anniversary of his passing on March 5, thousands of marchers -- both soldiers and civilians -- paid their respects to the country's "Eternal Commander." Before a crowd that included Chávez's successor, Nicolas Maduro, Cuba's Raúl Castro, and Bolivian President Evo Morales, Chávista Venezuela was on display.

Beneficiaries of the late Venezuelan president's various social programs waltzed by in carefully choreographed groups, smiling and singing while dressed in bright red, the color of the revolution. Billions of dollars worth of new arms from Russia and China were also paraded through, along with units of the country's National Guard, decked out in anti-riot gear, and informal "people's militias." To honor the late president, Maduro even unveiled a new insignia for the armed forces featuring Chávez's likeness.

"Chávez was the great protector of the people," Maduro intoned before the parade began. "There never existed a leader who would love the country like he did, and who would respect the poor."

Only blocks away, however, opponents of Chávez and Maduro showcased a different Venezuela, continuing spirited anti-government protests that have rocked the country since Feb. 2. Residents of the middle class neighborhood of Chacao woke up on Wednesday to find an effigy of Maduro hanging from a traffic light on the main boulevard that runs through eastern Caracas. Barricades constructed from concrete blocks, tree trunks, and garbage remained in many parts of the city, causing traffic snarls. Across the country Maduro's opponents launched protests and built barricades in most major cities, provoking violent clashes with security forces.

Since the protests erupted a little more than a month ago, at least 20 people have died and hundreds more have been arrested or injured in the worst rioting since Maduro assumed the presidency in April 2013. The government response has been two-faced: calling for dialogue and convening a peace conference on the one hand, and unleashing the police and National Guard on the other.

One year after his death, Chávez remains an important source of legitimacy for the regime. Maduro and his backers have done everything in their power to keep the memory of El Comandante alive -- and to deflect scrutiny away from their own embattled government. A caricature of Chávez's eyes and forehead forms the official insignia of Maduro's United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). Visitors arriving to Caracas via the main highway leading to the central part of the country are greeted by a massive billboard with his distinctive bushy eyebrows and steely eyes looking down on them.

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