Critical Introduction: Chávez’s storyline

Following his first presidential election, Chávez’s ability to wield language allowed him to dominate public discourse in Venezuela. To understand the influence Chávez exerted by consistently employing common themes in his discourse, we turn to Mona Baker’s exploration of the power of narrative in Translation and Conflict. The concept of “narrative” is defined quite simply by Baker, as “the everyday stories we live by” (ch. 1.2). These stories have an absolute influence, in that “people’s behaviour is ultimately guided by the stories they come to believe about the events in which they are embedded, rather than by their gender, race,… skin [color], or any other attribute” (Baker, ch. 1.2). Narrative is complex, with ontological, collective, public and meta- narratives all intersecting to contribute to our identities as individuals and communities.[1] Of the competing storylines, ontological narratives, or “narratives of the self,” are the “personal stories… we tell ourselves about our place in the world and our own personal history” (ch. 3.1). Although clearly personal in nature, Baker notes that ontological narratives are very closely tied to collective narratives, or the “symbols, linguistic formulations, structures, and vocabularies of motive… without which the personal would remain unintelligible and uninterpretable” (qtd in Baker, ch. 3.1). That is, our stories of ourselves do not exist in a vacuum. Instead, they draw upon and contribute to the collective narratives in which we find ourselves. For Baker, the power of this relationship is based on the fact that the “shared narratives, [or] the stories that are told and retold by numerous members of a society over a long period of time, provide the blueprints for ontological narratives, including the blueprints for the social roles and spaces that an individual can inhabit” (ch. 3.1). These narratives therefore “shape and constrain our personal stories, determining both their meanings and their possible outcomes” (Baker, ch. 3.1). Baker turns to Goffman to explain why it’s so important for society that these kinds of restrictions take place: “societies everywhere, if there are to be societies, must mobilize their members as self-regulating participants in social encounters” (ch. 3.1). In other words, knowing “who we are” with relationship to the collective is a “precondition of knowing what to do” in response to that collective (qtd in Baker, ch. 3.1). Thus, narratives can be seen as both a tool that guides our understanding of our relationship to others, and in turn, our behavior in response to them, but also as a constraint, as Baker notes below.

The way others ‘story’ us can have very concrete implications for our material, professional, social and psychological well-being. It can enhance or destroy our career, make us feel good about ourselves or throw us into despair, improve our social standing or turn us into outcasts. All this naturally impacts on our own developing narrative of who we are and how we relate to the world around us, on how we ‘narrate’ ourselves. (Baker, ch. 3.1)

                Public narratives are defined as the “stories elaborated by and circulating among social and institutional formations larger than the individual, such as the family, religious or education institution[s], the media, and the nation,” (Baker, ch. 3.2).[2] These narratives can include both ideologies such as the American Dream and Venezuelan Exceptionalism, along with “specific individuals who become symbols of a people, a movement, or an ideology” (Baker, ch. 3.2). Also, Baker observes that the literary tradition in any community is “one of the most powerful institutions for disseminating [those]… narratives” (ch. 3.2). Whether or not an individual will accept a public narrative depends on her or his ability to “easily accommodate [it] in[to] their own story of identity” (qtd in Baker, ch. 3.2). Yet, while public narratives will change in response to developments in the political and socio-economic environment, as Baker notes, the currency of any narrative will largely depend on “the power structure… in which it is embedded” (ch. 3.2). On the other hand, meta-narrative, or master narrative, is defined much more grandiosely as both the stories “in which we are embedded as contemporary actors in history” and “the epic dramas of our time” (Baker, ch. 3.4). According to Baker, these include such narratives as Industrialization; the War on Terror; and Capitalism vs. Communism; and the defining characteristic of meta-narrative is its “currency… over considerable stretches of time and across extensive geographical boundaries” (ch. 3.4). Yet, the question, for Baker, is how meta-narratives come to wield such currency. Certainly, explaining such phenomenon as the export of US values around the world, for example, is less problematic when considered in terms of the increasing globalization in which we currently find ourselves. For Baker, that still does little to explain how Christian or Muslim traditions have become so deeply ingrained in societal institutions around the world. The reach and influence of those meta-narratives is truly awesome to consider, and while impossible to explain exactly how they came to wield such power, Baker notes, “narratives do not travel across linguistic and cultural boundaries, and certainly do not develop into global meta-narratives, without the direct involvement of translators and interpreters” (ch. 3.4).

Just as Chávez returned again and again to a recent historical context in his discourse, through references to events like the Caracazo and historical players like the puntofijistas, he also repeatedly called upon the more distant past, with references to the Republics of Venezuela and Simón Bolívar. And from the beginning, Chávez demonstrated his skill at framing his own narrative within the framework of those greater collective, public and meta-narratives. Consider Chávez’s political party, the Fifth Republic Movement, a name that linked it to the previous republics in Venezuelan history, beginning with the First Republic, instituted with Simón Bolívar’s July 5, 1811 declaration of Venezuelan independence from Spain. [3] As Baker notes, “narratives of the past define and determine the narrative present” (ch. 2.3). Thus, the name Fifth Republic Movement both historicized Chávez’s political party and merged his (possible) election with the idea of beginning a new, historically significant era in Venezuelan politics. Baker further notes that the “retelling of past narratives is also a means of control…[,] socializ[ing]… individuals into an established social and political order and encourag[ing]… them to interpret present events in terms of sanctioned narratives of the past” (ch. 2.3). Chávez seemed to demonstrate a keen understanding of this strategy, often twisting history to better align with his overall narrative. Take, for example, the following excerpt from Carroll:

Traditionally, Venezuelans were taught that the uprising against Marcos Pérez Jiménez in 1958 ended the reign of dictators… and ushered in multiparty democracy [puntofijismo]. Chávez needed to reverse this sequence of virtue; otherwise how could he be the nation’s savior? Thus he half rehabilitated a U.S.‑backed brute who murdered and jailed thousands, repeatedly praising his public works, his discipline, his patriotism… The democracy that followed the dictator was cast as the true villain: an electoral charade to dupe the people while oligarchs looted the country. (Carroll 193)

The currency that narrative would eventually achieve is seen in the re-definition, among Chávez supporters, of the years which constitute the Fourth Republic. In Venezuela Speaks!, Martinez, Fox and Farrell observe that while Venezuela’s Fourth Republic is generally understood to have begun after the dissolution of Gran Colombia in 1830, lasting until Chávez took power in 1999, among chavistas, that era is now generally seen to “refer… to the forty-year period immediately preceding Chávez’[s] rise to power beginning with the Punto Fijo Pact” (299).

                By framing his political movement within a historical context, Chávez employs what Baker refers to as causal emplotment, or “identifying a cause for a set of events that help us determine what course of action we should take, [which] in turn allows us to appeal to others who see their ‘own sentiments or interests reflected in that choice of a social scene’” (Baker, Bennett and Edelman qtd. in Baker, ch. 4.3). Baker further notes that causal emplotment “weight[s]… events and endow[s]… them with significance, perhaps… as [a] turning point… in the context of the overall narrative” (ch. 4.3). As Baker observes, once events are endowed with such significance, they can also take on a greater over-arching meaning than the context in which they originally occurred (68). For Chávez, this over-arching meaning is one of decline and redemption, the period previous to his presidency coming to be known as a cancer or a sickness, with Chávez playing the part of a resurrected savior of the people. Indeed, within this context, each of the events leading up to his presidency takes on very special significance, the Caracazo coming to represent the clamor of the people for redemption, and Chávez’s coup attempt becoming a “military rebellion” carried out on behalf of that people.[4] Throughout his presidency, Chávez continually defined himself as the “interpreter” or “instrument” of the collective, reinventing his own narrative to better serve the overall public narrative he had created. Consider the president’s actual background: his father was a teacher and a member of the puntofijista COPEI. Each of his children, including Chávez, went to college and on to decent careers. Moreover, Chávez’s entire family benefited from subsidized housing and free education and healthcare, all through programs that had been instituted by the puntofijista government (Carroll 193). However, that narrative clearly misaligns with Chávez’s representation of the previous government as an oligarchic, corrupt, decaying machine. Thus, Chávez’s officially sanctioned narrative was revised. According to Carroll, “the nation was told a thousand times [that Chávez] was born in extreme poverty, a mud hut, and grew up in a venal, vicious system… [that] punished the poor[,]… [s]pat on the poor” (Carroll 193). In this case, fictionalizing his personal narrative to be more relatable to his primary audience lends Chávez a great deal of credibility. Within that narrative, Chávez is understood to be a good representative of the people because he is one the people.

                So Chávez infused his narrative with hope for a new beginning, and thus, a better future, employing what Baker refers to as temporality, or the “sequenc[ing]” of the events of a narrative (ch. 4.1). When discussing the power of temporality to “guide behavior and action,” Baker observes, “[t]emporality is not just about the past and the present but also, crucially, about a future. Narratives always project a chronological end that is also a moral end, a purpose, a forecast, an aspiration” (ch. 4.1). For Chávez, that moral end, that purpose, that aspiration is embodied in Simón Bolívar, the Libertador. Bolívar was a Venezuelan revolutionary, politician and scholar who led the fight for independence from Spanish rule for a great part of Latin America. He was among those who declared Venezuelan independence from Spain on July 5, 1811, and GeneralissimoFrancisco de Miranda’s negotiated surrender to the Spanish army on July 25, 1812 was a crushing blow to Bolívar (Lynch 55-61). Later that year, Bolívar authored his Cartagena Manifesto, in which he described the factors that contributed to Venezuelans defeat, pointing particularly to the political errors of the government of the First Republic (66). He continued to fight Spanish rule, both in battle and through politics, and his military achievements were celebrated by the Venezuelan assembly that conferred the title, “Liberator of Venezuela,” on him in 1813 (79). Later, he was granted “supreme power” over the Venezuelan government. However, internal dissention and key losses in battle led to the defeat of the Second Republic (77). In 1816, Bolívar declared the Third Republic, which lasted until just 1818 (102). He delivered his famous Angostura Address on February 15, 1819, which would be quoted extensively by Chávez some two hundred years later. Within that address, Bolívar outlined his ideas for the constitution of Gran Colombia, many of which were included in the final document adopted by the Angostura Congress. That instrument named him President of Gran Colombia, much of which still needed to be liberated from Spanish forces. (Lynch 119-122). His victory in the Battle of Boyacá on August 7, 1819 secured independence for much of New Granada (present day Colombia, Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela), and victory in the Battle of Carabobo on June 24, 1821 nearly concluded the fight for independence for that region (Lynch 129-131, 140-141). Bolívar would go on to fight for the independence of Peru, and while successful on that front, he would not achieve his dream of Latin American unity. His “attempt to form a broader territory of freed territories” through his 1826 Congress of Panama ultimately failed (“Bolívar, Simón,” 99). Bolívar died on December 17, 1830 disillusioned with that fight, having said, “Those who serve a revolution plough the sea” (trnsltd in Lynch 276).

                Bolívar’s unfinished work—and the entire figure of Bolívar—is a theme that was consolidated by Chávez into a narrative that would link his government to the fulfillment of what might be called the “Bolivarian Dream,” a lofty mission to transform Venezuelan society and government and promote social equality and justice. Indeed, as Carroll observes, “Chávez cast Bolívar as a prototype socialist with a sacred mission to transform Venezuela, a mission he himself would complete” (192). Chávez continually referenced Bolívar, naming organizations like the Bolivarian Circles after him and quoting him in speeches. Still, Chávez’s appropriation of the figure of Bolívar is perhaps best demonstrated by the new name instituted for the county in the 1999 Constitution: the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.[5] While some argued against what was going to be a very expensive change to implement, Chávez insisted on this new name, and in terms of the previous discussion on sequencing, we learn that this move by Chávez was particularly shrewd. It implied that his government was the “moral end” of an almost 200 year struggle in Venezuela, and any actions taken by his government were therefore legitimized both by the historical significance and the moral virtue bestowed on it by that narrative (Baker, ch. 4.1). And Chávez consistently required his audience to view his government through that temporal lens, although his references to Bolívar were not always overt. For example, Chávez’s repeated references to his government as the expression of the Bolivarian revolution made available an entire sub-narrative on war, in which Chávez, the Comandante, was leading his supporters in a forward march toward socialist utopia. Since all narratives “categoriz[e]… behaviour along a moral and socially sanctioned cline into valued vs. non-valued,… legitimate vs. non-legitimate,” etc., this sub-narrative further opened his over-arching narrative to an “us vs. them” mentality (Baker, ch. 2.1.1). Within that storyline Chávez’s detractors could be characterized as oligarchic capitalists, sacrificing the greater good of the country to satiate their greed. Binaries such as Bolivarians vs. oligarchs, socialism vs. neoliberal capitalism, Venezuela vs. the U.S. were themes to which Chávez would turn again and again in his portrayal of the obstacles facing the country and the successes of his revolution.

[1] The notion of “conceptual narratives” or the “stories and explanations that scholars in any field elaborate for themselves and others about their object of inquiry” has been omitted from the discussion above (Baker, ch. 3.3).

[2] Baker acknowledges the similarities between public and collective narratives, noting that the latter is a category not generally accounted for in specific models developed for narrative theory. Collective narratives then “refer vaguely to any type of narrative that has currency in a given community” (Baker, ch. 3.2).

[3] Venezuela’s Second Republic lasted from 1813 to 1814, during which time Venezuela revolutionaries continued their struggles for independence from Spain. The Third Republic began in 1816 and lasted until 1819, when Venezuela was consolidated into the greater Gran Colombia (Lynch 55-61, 72-81, 102-131).

[4] Carroll observes that even history books were revised to coincide with this narrative: “his 1992 coup against Carlos Andrés Pérez was [no longer] a military conspiracy but the cry of an oppressed people. School textbooks were [even] amended so the coup became ‘a rebellion that changed the destiny of the republic’” (193-194).

[5] See the 17th Temporary Provision of the “Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.”