What I remember most from that day are Lenin’s fingernails. The rest of him looked normal, if waxen, like an eerie import from Madame Tussaud’s. But the fingernails showed the passing of time. They were the rings in the tree trunk, the caked dust on the untouched piano. They were thick, yellow, flaky. I wondered why he wasn’t wearing gloves. Maybe they thought he’d look too much like a magician.
Hugo Chávez, like Lenin, will be embalmed. The announcement from Venezuela’s acting president Nicolás Maduro wasn’t shocking. Chávez’s own obsession with what Christopher Hitchens called “politicized necrophilia” was confirmed when he exhumed Simón Bolívar. There’s also plenty of precedent among left-leaning rulers living out eternity in display cases: now Chávez will join the ranks of Lenin, Mao, and Ho Chi Minh.
Yet it’s also a strange thing, embalming. It’s out-of-touch with our non-corporal contemporary reality. Such a focus on the body — “So his people will always have him,” says Maduro — seems fantastical, ancient, a relic from the world of mummies and bodily reincarnation. Absent life, absent personality and, in the case of Chávez, absent that relentless, inexhaustible rhetoric, what can the body of a ruler do for a country? After paying my respects to Lenin and his eroding fingernails, I walked across Red Square to buy some fries and a fruit juice at McDonald’s. Lenin’s body may be there, but Moscow is now a maze of oversized billboard advertisements and knockoff Armani muscle shirts. The revolution will not be televised. But Keeping Up With the Kardashians will.
Chávez was an elected caudillo who, despite gaining power through a democratic vote, still walked straight from the pages of a García Márquez dictator novel. He had a penchant for Whitmanesque claims and larger-than-life absurdity. He loved exclamation points. A tweet from 2012: Chávez es un Pueblo!! Chávez somos millones!! Tú también eres Chávez!! (Roughly translated: “Chávez is the people!! All of us are Chávez!! You’re Chávez, too!”)
Venezuela may not fall apart now, but chavismo as we know it likely will. Caudillo, strongman, personality cult regimes always come with an expiration date. Some continue and evolve, like Marxism. Others morph and swing with time, like peronismo in Argentina. Others simply fade, crushing under the weight of political reality with no scaffolding to sustain them. Everyone watching Venezuela right now is asking: what will chavismo be without Chávez?
Death rituals help us mortals deal with the unfortunate permanence of mortality. We’re fascinated by bodies whose souls have departed. We dress them up, we revere them, we send them on their way to the afterlife with symbolic objects. We try to fuse the realm of the dead with the realm of the living. These bodies hint at something beyond our world, more so when they’re the bodies of rulers, of self-styled demigods.
The irony of embalming Chávez is that, through the love of poor Venezuelans who sobbed over his resting body, through the hatred of wealthy Venezuelans toasting his death from their self-imposed exile in Chile or Europe or the US, through history books that will analyze his rule (dictator or democrat, saint or demon?), Chávez, just by being the bombastic, charismatic, capricious leader he was, achieved more immortality than the majority of men or women ever will.
He’ll be remembered, with admiration, with anger. This has very little to do, however, with the presence of his waxen body in the Revolution Museum in Caracas.