CARACAS, Venezuela – Business has never been better for Eudis Carrillo. Sure, he’s heartbroken over the death of his hero Hugo Chavez, but there’s precious little time for sentiment: Hats and T-shirts of the late Venezuelan president are flying off the shelves at his street-side stand faster than he can keep them in stock.
Ditto demand for Chavez tattoos, Chavez earrings, Chavez mugs and talking Chavez action figurines. One can even buy Chavez boxer shorts and panties, part of a cult of personality that began while the former paratrooper was still alive but has exploded in the week since he succumbed to cancer.
“It’s really a shame the president died, but the souvenir business is booming,” said the 42-year-old Carrillo, who says he is selling five times as much merchandise as when Chavez was alive. “It isn’t good to make money off the death of someone like the president, but what can we do? People are asking us for it.”
Analysts say we are witnessing the supersizing of a myth — and an industry.
“Chavez died in perfect condition to be mythologized and marketed,” said Luis Vicente Leon, president of the respected Datanalisis polling firm, who predicted the Chavez industry would only grow. “He was young, he died in power and he was recently re-elected. It’s like James Dean or Marilyn Monroe.”
Leon said that even when he was alive Chavez embraced his brand, unlike historical figures such as Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who became a marketing phenomenon after his death — and contrary to his anti-capitalist ideals.
“President Chavez was a stimulator of his own cult of personality,” said Leon. “He’d be all for it.”
Yet others doubted Chavez would ever go global because his death from cancer wasn’t seen as heroic and didn’t coincide with an international movement
“I don’t think you’re going to see kids in China wearing Chavez T-shirts. I don’t think you’re going to see Chavez painted on the walls of Chiapas in the way that Che is,” said Trisha Ziff, a filmmaker and curator who has produced a documentary, and exhibition on Che iconography. “Will the next generation aspire to Chavez as they did to Che? I don’t think so.”
Still, at the Soul Tattoo and Body Piercing shop in Sabana Grande, requests for Chavez body art have gone through the roof since his March 5 death, said Juan Pablo Gonzalez, 27, the heavily-pierced and tattooed store manager.
“We sold a few Chavez tattoos before, but frankly it wasn’t that popular. Now it is totally out of proportion,” he said, fondling a thick loop inserted into his stretched-out earlobe.
Gonzalez said four of the 16 tattoos requested in the three days since reopening after Chavez’s death have been copies of the president’s flowing signature, in his traditional red. They cost 600 bolivars (nearly $100 at the official exchange rate, $27 at black market rates).
For four times more you can get a portrait of Chavez’s face etched onto your arm or back. Gonzalez said several people had asked about the portrait in recent days, but had balked at the price.
At Caracas’s congested Bolivar Plaza, a favourite hangout for the president’s supporters, shoppers can find virtually anything Chavez-related the mind can dream up, from family photos to hair clips to replica presidential sashes in the yellow, red, and blue of the Venezuelan flag.
Other tchotchkes include Weeble-like inflatable dolls of Chavez in green military garb that bounce back when you punch them. They bear the phrase: “INTUMBABLE,” which can mean both undefeatable and un-knock-down-able.
Another doll, made in China, features Chavez in a red beret. Pedro Frailan is selling 60 of them a day, up from the 10 he sold before Chavez died. If you push a button on the doll’s back it launches into one of the long, boisterous speeches for which Chavez was known.
“I came here to do everything humanly possible to be of use to the Venezuelan people!” the doll barks over and over and over again. There is no button to turn it off.
And then there are the oil paintings of Chavez wearing his signature red beret, which Felix Rodriguez would sell you for 400 bolivars if he had any left in stock.
He insisted he was proudest of a larger painting he was finishing up that is not for sale: A depiction of Chavez being raised to heaven by the nation’s poor, flanked by Che and Jesus Christ.
“I’m doing that one out of love,” said Rodriguez, who plans to display it at his curbside stand.
Indeed, the eulogizing of Chavez has at times taken on overtly religious tones. On his way to attend the state funeral last week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said he had no doubt the Venezuelan leader would be resurrected like Jesus and Imam Mahdi, the most revered figure in Shi’a Islam. Acting president Maduro has repeatedly compared Chavez to Christ, and announced that his body would be embalmed and put on permanent display, just like Mao, Lenin and Ho Chi Minh.
The government has also raised banners to Chavez on virtually every street, with one proclaiming biblically: “From his hands, sprouts the rain of life.”
Juan Villegas, a 27-year-old Chavez supporter who has been making a living selling glossy colour photographs of Chavez for the past two years, said the religious comparisons are valid.
“He is a father to all of us,” he said. “He is our light.”
Others were less convinced, but happy to make a buck while they can.
“We’re not political here,” said Gonzalez, the tattoo parlour manager. “Lenin. Bush. Gadhafi. Chavez. We’ll give you a tattoo of anything you want. If you have the money, it’s yours.”
Peter Orsi in Havana contributed to this report.
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