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October 25, 2014
Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The cult of a fallen leader, who remains everywhere

CARACAS — A year after Hugo Chávez’s death, dozens of mourners still trek daily to his mausoleum atop a hillside slum overlooking downtown Caracas.

There, in the century-old military barracks where he commanded a failed 1992 coup, El Comandante rests in a marble tomb flanked by soldiers wearing the hussar-style uniform that independence hero Simon Bolivar favoured, including a tight jacket adorned with gold braid and a tall black hat with a chin strap.

“Every day I pray to God to care for Chávez’s soul,” said Raimundo Villanueva, who travelled five hours by bus from the northeastern town of Anaco to pay his tearful respects. “He meant everything to me. He was my brother, my uncle, my friend, my comrade.”

Such devotion has been a crucial, but fading force for Chavez’s hand-picked successor, President Nicolas Maduro.

“Maduro has done everything within his power to use the Chávez cult against the economic crisis, but it’s a lopsided battle,” said Alberto Barrera Tyszka, author of a 2004 biography of the late former president. “Every day that goes by he’s less and less seen as Chávez’s heir.”

While the crisis besetting Venezuela has dominated attention of late, the late leader still stands larger than life among traditional have-nots like Villanueva, the owner of a fast-food stand who credits Chávez’s 21st-century socialism for being able to send his three children to university. But even many government supporters see Maduro as an inferior version of Chávez, who was a master of theatrics with an infectious vision of Latin American solidarity against the US “empire.”

Never really left

It may have been 12 months since Chávez’s death, but it often seems that the charismatic leader never really left.

Chávez’s portrait in a red beret is still seen on buildings, pins, action-figure dolls and daily on television. National guard troops have used a recording of him reciting poetry played at high volume to disperse protesters in Caracas. Even when the highlight reel isn’t playing, Maduro has been known to say he’s spotted the man who hand-picked him to lead the country in a little bird or a subway tunnel’s rock wall.

With the sometimes violent protests dominating the agenda, Maduro appears ready to use Chávez’s almost mythical status to steady his rule as protesters refuse to leave the streets.

Last week, he announced events to remember el commandante, beginning this morning with a military parade in Caracas, followed by a remembrance ceremony at the mausoleum, and capped with the debut of US director Oliver Stone’s documentary, My Friend Hugo.

Yesterday, workers for the state oil company were putting a fresh coat of paint on the mausoleum in preparation for those expected to flock to the site.

“For me, he was something great,” said Felida Mora, who travels about more than 30 kilometres to Caracas from Los Teques, at least once a month, to pray nearby at an improvized tin-roof St. Hugo Chávez Chapel in the 23rd of January slum. The small structure is painted red and white and contains a plaster bust of Chávez beneath a poster of the departed leader and Jesus Christ.

“I have cried a lot for him, more than for my family,” Mora said.

Herald with AP

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