Critical Introduction

During his fourteen year presidency, Hugo Chávez Frías amassed thousands upon thousands of hours speaking to his beloved Venezuelan pueblo. He delivered speeches. His talk show Aló Presidente, televised every Sunday, sometimes ran up to seven or eight hours. His program, Chávez de repente (Suddenly with Chávez), while short lived, allowed the president to seize radio airwaves without notice. Then, there were the “chains”—emergency broadcasts turned presidential transmissions—that interrupted television programming at any hour of the day. In Comandante: Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela, Rory Carroll notes that by 2010, Chávez “had notched up, over a decade, more than 1,923 chains. Each lasted an average of forty minutes, adding up to almost thirteen hundred hours. The equivalent of fifty-three days” (184). Chávez certainly exploited his position of power to commandeer Venezuela’s modes of communication, and no matter the topic, Venezuelans could be certain that the president’s perspective on current events, world relations and his life experiences would dominate public discourse. And Chávez’s unlimited access to and control over communication outlets meant that Venezuelans had little choice but to engage with his narrative, whether for or against him. While that monopoly over the modes of communication greatly contributed to his dominance in public discourse, Chávez’s rhetorical skill, coupled with a consistent storyline about his government and his presidency, ultimately allowed him to mobilize and maintain a wide base of ardent supporters. He was certainly the first politician in some time to directly address the needs of the poor, and a central theme to his overall narrative on his presidency was one in which he identified himself as the “interpreter” of the people and “the instrument of the collective.” Thus, while Chávez’s revolución bolivariana would result in power being ever-increasingly centralized in his office; budgetary secrecy; corruption and mismanagement; and media censorship; throughout, supporters glorified his government for encompassing the poder popular (popular power) and democracia participativa that Chávez preached. Indeed, neologisms like chavismo and chavista illustrate the extent to which the cult of Chávez took hold in Venezuela.

Chávez’s ability to consolidate so much power into the office of the presidency was, of course, not just the result of his rhetorical skill. Oil prices in particular greatly strengthened Chávez’s position. As Gregory Wilpert notes in Changing Venezuela by Taking Power, the price per barrel reached record numbers during Chávez’s presidency, thanks in part to the president’s efforts to recommit OPEC countries to their production quotas (overproduction had led to a steep fall in oil prices) (94). Statistics published by the U.S. Energy Information Administration indicate peak oil prices of just over 100 dollars per barrel in 2010. When Chávez took office in 1999, the price per barrel was not even fifteen dollars (“U.S. FOB Costs of Venezuelan Crude Oil”). Other external factors that contributed to Chávez’s success include missteps by the opposition. For example, in “Electoral Competition and Regime Change,” Angel E Alvarez and Yorelis J Acosta point to the 2005 elections that were boycotted by the opposition due to “claim[s] that the government was prepared to commit [voter] fraud.” This led to a National Assembly made up almost completely of Chávez supporters, which in turn meant that opposition parties had absolutely “no influence in the policy-making process” for the next five years (Alvarez and Acosta). Additionally, Chávez’s access to oil money allowed him to carry out what might be deemed as well‑timed bribery. For instance, Carroll describes the 2012 campaign season, during which Chavez began two public missions, one which promised the building of two million homes for the nation’s homeless and another through which 1.3 million appliances—washing machines, dishwashers, stoves and televisions—were distributed to the public (282-283). Many external factors therefore came together to allow Chávez to cement his role in Venezuelan politics. Still, he will perhaps be best remembered for his rhetoric. Among chavistas, support seems to have stemmed from a sense of connection to Chávez’s brand of socialism and democracy, or put more simply, a belief in his narrative.[1] And Chávez’s was a narrative that became so ingrained in the collective psyche of his supporters that after his death in 2013, Vice President Nicolas Madura invoked chavismo in the campaign that led to his own election.

My fascination with Chávez’s narrative began during the spring of 2012 in a course titled Comparative Systems. For that course, I chose Venezuela to be the country on which my research would focus for the semester. I had been enchanted with the idea of socialism as an alternative to the capitalistic model for some time, along with the belief that that societies, governments and economies can be propelled by something other than money. In Venezuela and later in Chávez, I saw an opportunity to experience that alternative model. Chávez had, after all, been claiming his revolution toward twenty-first century socialism for seven years by the time I started studying Venezuela. And at first, Chávez’s government met my expectations for what a socialist government should look like. Among the first programs I researched was Chávez’s Barrio Adentro program, which stationed Cuban doctors in depressed neighborhoods to ensure that the poor had access to healthcare. Early research also yielded Chávez’s Robinson Missions and his Community Councils, which promoted literacy and grassroots participation in the government respectively. Those and similar programs corresponded with Chávez’s rhetoric, which promised a government that would redress inequalities that had long reigned in Venezuela. His speeches on such topics as justice and equality were truly inspirational, and although I was aware of the societal divisions he incited in Venezuela, I suspended judgment early on, preferring to hold onto the image of who I wanted Chávez to be. Later research would of course force me cast aside the image of Chávez as a one-dimensional hero, and this project is the result of that early disappointment and the desire to understand how Chávez’s narrative wielded such influence among the Venezuelan population, and more personally, upon me.

The principal objective of this project has therefore been to explore the power of Chávez’s narrative, and, based upon that exploration, to begin to establish strategies for conveying the power of his words in translation. In view of that goal, I first present an overview of the events that led to Chávez’s presidency. Because many recent events from Venezuela’s history are referenced over and again in Chávez’s discourse, this discussion also provides readers with a context for the translations of the speeches that follow the critical introduction. Subsequent to the historical overview is an examination of the means by which language influences. That examination turns first to Mona Baker’s narrative theory. In Translation and Conflict, Baker demonstrates the very personal nature of the stories through which we understand and interact with the world. By applying her framework to the overarching themes in Chávez’s discourse, we learn of the strategies Chávez employs to position his audience’s conception of his government and presidency. Our examination of the power of language turns next to Isabella Fairclough and Norman Fairclough’s framework for political discourse analysis. In Political Discourse Analysis, the connections Fairclough and Fairclough draw between political argumentation and action illustrate Chávez’s ability to influence and indeed domineer over governmental policy. Finally, our discussion shifts from an examination of Chávez’s discourse to the translation of that discourse. We begin this investigation by considering the ethics of translation as presented by Lawrence Venuti in The Translator’s Invisibility. Through Venuti’s discussion of domestication and foreignization, we come to understand translation as a political activity, and based on that conception, I determine that foreignizing translation is what my project aspires to be. Overall then, through this project, I endeavor to explore Chávez’s narrative skill in order to form a foundation on which I might begin to establish strategies for conveying the emotion, influence and inspiration of his speeches in translation. Because beyond being a Bolivarian or Presidente or Comandante, Chávez was a storyteller. And as such, the stories that follow are Chávez’s, while at the same time they are the stories I seek to tell of the storyteller.

[1] Documentaries like ¿Puedo hablar? Retrato de un movimiento and South of the Border demonstrate the extent to which Chávez supports backed their Comandante.