Monday, April 15, 2013

To supporters, "Saint Chavez" watches over Venezuela vote

By Andrew Cawthorne

CARACAS (Reuters) - Fresh flowers were placed and new candles burning on Sunday at the "Saint Hugo Chavez" shrine in Caracas where devotees of the late socialist leader prayed for his last wishes to be fulfilled in the presidential vote.

Before succumbing to cancer last month, Chavez urged his millions of followers to vote for then-Vice President Nicolas Maduro as the flag bearer of socialism should he die.

For many, that became an almost sacred command.

"I came here to ask for my commander's blessing, so that the one he chose, Maduro, can take forward his legacy," said housewife Carmen Figueroa, 57, pressing her hand on a poster of Chavez in the makeshift altar on the side of a busy road.

The shrine sprang up spontaneously in the populous January 23 neighborhood near a military building that was turned into a museum and chapel where Chavez's remains are housed in a marble sarcophagus.

"They didn't accept flowers and candles there, but people wanted to leave things for the commander, so the community decided to make something here outside," said Elizabeth Torres, 48, who owns a kiosk next door and looks after the shrine.

A large banner juxtaposing Chavez's face with a picture of Jesus Christ carrying his crucifix dominates the middle of the hut turned into what some have dubbed "the people's shrine."

On the floor are numerous images of the late leader and Christian saints. Offerings include a glass of water and a cup of coffee - Chavez used to down black coffee all day before starting cancer treatment.

The "Saint Hugo Chavez" altar is one of numerous religious expressions all over Venezuela since he died on March 5.


His death, at 58, cemented his already cult-like status among supporters who adored his down-to-earth style, humble beginnings, aggressive "anti-imperialist" rhetoric, and channeling of oil revenue into social welfare projects.

To detractors, however, in a nation split broadly down the middle by his polarizing 14-year rule, Chavez should also be remembered for what they see as his bullying of opponents, autocratic style and squandering of an unprecedented bonanza of oil income through corruption and inefficient management.

Supporters of opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, who was running behind Maduro in polls before Sunday's vote, say the government's top brass has been cynically exploiting Chavez's memory to perpetuate their own hold on power.

Illustrating how the hatred of Chavez equaled the love in intensity, some Venezuelans cracked open champagne when he died.

Figueroa said those people had underestimated his impact.

"They'll never understand. Before Chavez, we were ignorant and humiliated. He brought dignity to the poor," she said, sticking a smaller picture of Maduro under a Chavez poster.

Though his legacy and image have dominated the campaign, with some in the opposition claiming they were forced to fight the "ghost of Chavez" instead of Maduro, many Venezuelans found it strange to be voting without him around on Sunday.

Nowhere was that truer than in the streets around the Manuel Palacios Fajardo school where Chavez cast his ballot over-and-over again during the multiple elections and referendums since his first presidential victory in 1998.

The garrulous Chavez would usually stop to greet crowds and give lengthy speeches about democracy after voting.

"You could feel the happiness and hope around him," said local resident Pedro Blanco, a 63-year-old lawyer, queuing to vote at the school.

"It's him I'm voting for again today, he's the one in my mind. Of course it's sad he's no longer here, but the world hasn't finished, has it? His spirit is with us. And his representative on earth is Maduro."

(Editing by Todd Benson and Jackie Frank)


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