The Presidency of Hugo Chavez had a shaky beginning, to say the least, and came close to crashing down several times along the way. His career as an army officer went off the rails in 1992 when he was imprisoned for two years following his attempt to remove by coup President Carlos Andrés Pérez. After that, it took several years of aggressive politicking for him to build a new political movement and win his first election as President of Venezuela in 1999. Re-elected in 2000 and again in 2006 he survived a coup against himself in 2002, a referendum in 2004, and public relations backlash from two failed marriages and unending rumours of infidelity. He was well into his third term when doctors discovered the cancer for which they could offer no cure but only the palliating benefits of radiation therapy in Cuba. In spite of this clear scientific verdict, on July 9, 2012, Chávez declared himself fully recovered from cancer and turned to the people to give him an eternal mandate, winning a fourth term in October 2012. It was only after he secured that mandate that the public was given something resembling the truth about his health. The National Assembly bent the constitution so that he could postpone his inauguration (due to occur in January, 2013) and so it was left to his Vice President, Nicolas Maduro, to continue as Acting President, pending elections which, following the present constitution, will take place on April 14.
In the hours before Chavez’ passing, the world was told that “his trust was in Christ.” Speaking before a television camera, standing by the side of his parents and before the crucified Jesus, he exclaimed: “Give me Your crown, Jesus Christ. Give me Your cross. Give me Your thorns so that I may bleed. But give me life, because I have more to give for this country, and these people. Do not let me die yet.”
Some independent websites are today spitting out cruel mockery of this profession and these last scenes. But I will take it that readers here agree that none of us has the right to question anyone’s declaration of faith in Christ. I am content to let Hugo Chavez’ Christology remain a mystery to me. At the same time, Chavez’ understanding of the “politics of Jesus” are not a mystery, and are of interest to all of us since Chavez’ words on this topic are enormously influential today.
Liberation Theology and Global Politics
Like many politicians in North America as well as in Latin Americawho work mainly with clients of at least nominal Roman Catholic upbringing, Hugo Chavez is immersed in the vocabulary of “Liberation Theology.” In these circles, the key to interpreting the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that He was a revolutionary leader of oppressed masses everywhere. This theme figured in many of Chavez’ lengthy television harangues at home in Venezuela, but to me the most significant expression occurs in (of all places) an impromptu speech that he made standing at the side of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran, Iran in 2006.
I’m a Christian, and I believe that Jesus came to announce to us the coming of the Kingdom of God, and the Kingdom of God is peace, equality, and justice. The American empire is the number one enemy in the way of the Kingdom of Peace and Justice …. How can this be achieved? … The answer is that we must create a multi-polar world. This is the spirit of the foreign policy ofVenezuela, my dear friend and brother, Muhammad [Ahmadinejad.]
Ahmadinejad immediately added his endorsement to Chavez’ exegesis on the theme of Jesus’ politics, confirming Chavez’ thesis that Muslims everywhere are the allies of all those radicalized Christians who recognize America to be the Great Satan, the destroyer of peace. Chavez in return encouraged his host with the thought that the Muslim countries have an ultimate weapon to use against the West: “petroleum.”
The petroleum will come to an end one day …. The U.S.has scarcely 5% of the world’s population, but it consumes over 20% of the energy produced throughout the planet. The towers of the watchamacallit… the WorldTrade Center [speaking in 2006] consume more electricity than almost all the cities in West and Central Africa.
Elsewhere, Chavez has made great use of the image of the United States as “Dracula …always in search of petrol and blood. Why? Because they want to preserve something transient – the imperialistic American way of life.” In contrast, Iran “is a Third World country. It is a member of OPEC. All OPEC members should support Iran….We applaud Iran for its determination and decision to develop its atomic energy project.”
In the cause of “resistance to the imperialist hegemony of theUnited States,” Chavez has formed a “Bolivarian Alliance” with the Communist regime of Castro in Cub and the socialist regimes of Morales in Bolivia, Correa in Ecuador, and Ortega in Nicaragua.
Chavez and the Jews
In the shared opinion of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hugo Chavez the ultimate obstacle to the founding the Kingdom of God on earth is “the Jews.” Jews everywhere share responsibility with governments of the United States who promoted the Zionist cause back in 1947 at the time of the UN partition of the Palestine Mandate and who subsequently encouraged Israel in all of her warfare against the Palestinian people. In this interpretation of recent history, people who follow Chavez’ “liberationist” thinking see common ground with the ideas and the strategies of atheists who agree in identifying Zionism as the principal enemy of world peace.
Over the past fourteen years, Chavez has drawn with increasing clarity the connection he sees between the ambitions of the Americans to crush liberty throughout the world (while pretending to advance it) and the ambitions of the Jews to own everything and everybody. Like Ahmadinejad, but with perhaps less bogus-scientific specificity, he has spoken of Jews in the vocabulary that derives from Goebbels – as carriers of lethal bacteria. The Jews are everywhere, says Chavez. They dominate the American political and economic system, and they are here in Venezuela. They have, indeed, been here far too long and they are increasing in numbers and exponentially in influence [See “Venezuelan Jews Recall Hugo Chavez’s Anti-Semitic Climate of Hate,” FrontPage Magazine, http://frontpagemag.com, March 11, 2013.] While throughout the world the Jews act for the most part invisibly, so that their true immoral character is not perceived, in Israel they have their own state and in “Palestine” they are free to let loose their full viciousness upon the innocent.
We feel that the Israeli aggression against the Palestinians and against Lebanon is directed against us too. This aggression is unjustified. It is perpetrated in the fascist manner of Hitler…. Now they are doing what Hitler did to the Jews. They are killing innocent children and whole families. They dismantled the legitimate government ofPalestine, and thwarted tremendous efforts to achieve peace and establish a Palestinian state … Now they are attacking Lebanon, and have destroyed more than half of it, according to the latest information …. The hand of the Americans is spurring them on. This hand is behind the Israeli aggression. It is imperialistic aggression. The real threat to the world is the imperialistic threat posed by theU.S., and Israel is one of its imperialistic instruments in this part of the world.
Speaking from that platform in Tehran in 2006 Chavez poured out his contempt for Israel’s army:
I tell you, from here, from Tehran, 1,000 times: Assassins, cowards. But, in all honesty, they are totally condemned. From the depths of the soul of the peoples, a force will emerge that will put an end to imperialism and all its lackeys. As Simon Bolivar called upon God to deal with his enemies “God, if there is any justice, send bolts of lightning from Your hands upon the monsters.” Allah willing.
We, along with all the peoples and free human beings, condemn this cowardly and despicable behavior. We believe that those primarily responsible for these crimes are the ones who established this corrupt regime [that is, the State of Israel] and who use it to control the peoples. We believe that these crimes are bringing this corrupt regime and its supporters quickly to their end. Americaand England must answer for these crimes.
Last week, when announcing the leader’s death, his Vice-President, now Acting President, Nicolas Maduro stated that he had “no doubt” that foul play by “the historical enemies of our homeland” was behind Chávez’ illness and death. Somehow. The most obvious reading of this Delphic statement is that it refers to the United States, but it is logical to assume that the Jews are also in mind, given their dominating influence in circles where American foreign policy is made.
In his first successful bid for the Presidency in 1999, Hugo Chavez’ freely delivered himself of anti-Jewish rhetoric, calling Jews pigs, denying the Holocaust and accusing Israel of genocide against the Palestinians. A recurring line was that Venezuela’s largest businesses are controlled by Jews “stealing the nation’s money.” He claimed that his opponents in the 2004 referendum were “poisoned by those wandering Jews.” As the years went on, anti-Semitism became more and more a fact of life in Venezuela. Historic synagogues were bombed and desecrated and anti-Jewish graffiti proliferated. Increasingly, Venezuelan Jews saw emigration as the solution to this growing atmosphere of contempt and menace. Between 1999 and the end of 2010, more than half of Venezuela’s Jews had left the country. A good number made aliyah to Israel, while a large proportion went to the United States and Colombia.
While Chavez’ anti-semitism has easily identifiable roots in popular anti-semitism in Hispanic America, it is re-enforced increasingly by his anti-Zionist rhetoric and by his association (as we have seen) with the Islamic version of Jew-hatred espoused by his closest international comrade, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Chavez imagines himself “a Nasserist,” totally identifying with the great Arab-Muslim struggle against the Zionists. Speaking in Qatar in 2006 he said: “I’m celebrating my birthday in the heart of the Arab homeland, on Arab land. What a happy coincidence! My heart beats along with millions of Arab hearts. I could have been an Arab. I have crossed deserts, I have ridden camels, and I have sung with the Bedouin. I have learnt in those years to love and respect the Arab people.”
Chavismo closer to home
Liberation theology is also pervasive among statesmen of World Council of Churches and it fully explains the solidarity of the world vision of Hugo Chavez and at least one very vocal and influential wing of that ecumenical body. In March, 2007, leaders of the National Council of Churches of Christ (the American branch of WCC) visited President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran in March of 2007. They reported back that “Ahmadinejad comes across as a very religious man” — who would want to deny that? — a man furthermore, “having a measured tone, seemingly reasonable and having a witty personality.” Abraham Foxman of the Anti Defamation League expressed the puzzlement of Jews everywhere that these leaders of what most Jews still imagine are the mainstream American denominations seemed unfamiliar with Ahmadinejad’s repeated pledge to wipe the State of Israel from the map, his mockery of the Holocaust and his contempt for “Zionists” whom he calls “the most detested people in all humanity.” Some years earlier (October, 2004), a delegation of senior American Presbyterian leaders visited Lebanon (on the dime of the American Presbyterians) in order to meet with the leaders of Hezbollah. Appearing on the television network of Hezbollah (al-Manour) the head of the delegation, Rev. Ronald Stone reported: “Relations and conversations with Islamic leaders are a lot easier than dealings and dialogue with Jewish leaders…. We treasure the precious words of Hizb’Allah and your expression of goodwill towards the American people.” This visit provided opportunity to mark the twenty-first anniversary of the suicide-bombing of the barracks of American marines in Lebanon, which took the lives of 241 American soldiers involved in the peace-keeping force in Lebanon – Hezbollah’s debut upon the world stage.
Whether Chavez’ successor, the present acting President, wins or loses that election in April, Chavismo will surely live on in the counsels of ecumenical Christianity.