Ghost of Hugo Chavez haunts Venezuela election campaign

Ghost of Hugo Chavez haunts Venezuela election campaign

CARACAS - Reuters
Ghost of Hugo Chavez haunts Venezuela election campaign

Nicolas Maduro, 50, is a staunc Chavez loyalist, chosen by him as his preferred successor. He became closer to Chavez after the president’s cancer was diagnosed in mid-2011. Polls show that he is leading rival Capriles by at least 14 percentage points. AP photo

Weeks after his death, Venezuelan socialist leader Hugo Chavez still leads supporters in singing the national anthem. The late president’s recorded voice booms over rallies for his protégé, acting President Nicolas Maduro, who stands under billboards of Chavez’s face and waves to crowds carrying signs emblazoned with his name.

Maduro, who is favored to win a snap election triggered by Chavez’s death last month, rarely misses a chance to lionize the man many Venezuelans know as “El Comandante.”

“All of the prophecies of Hugo Chavez, the prophet of Christ on this earth, have come true,” intoned Maduro at a rally.

Seeking to tap into the emotional outpouring following his death, Maduro’s presidential campaign has put Chavez’s image on nearly everything except the ballot.

From thundering speeches celebrating Chavez’s days as a leftist military conspirator to stories told in a low voice of his final days suffering from cancer, Maduro has made Chavez’s ghost the centerpiece of his campaign.

Helium balloons take check to the sky

At one rally, a symbolic dividend check from a telephone company that Chavez nationalized was tied to red helium balloons and released into the sky to thank him for a wave of state takeovers that put much of the economy under state control.

“This is a present for the person who most deserves it, the person who created this economic and social system to take us toward socialism,” Maduro said, in a rally at the steps of the presidential palace. “There it goes, for our Comandante Chavez!”

Adding to the seeming ubiquity of Chavez’s persona still in Venezuela, state TV frequently plays a cartoon of him arriving in a green field, representing the afterlife. A smiling Chavez is greeted by Venezuelan independence heroes and deceased leaders of the Latin American left including Argentina’s Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Chile’s Salvador Allende.

Though not as omnipresent, the shadow of Chavez also falls large on the opposition campaign. Crisscrossing the country in a campaign similar to his unsuccessful 2012 bid against Chavez, youthful opposition candidate Henrique Capriles frequently invokes him too, but to try to belittle Maduro as a nonentity and pale imitation of his former boss.

‘Nicolas, you are not Chavez!’

“Nicolas, you are not Chavez!” he has said.

Opposition strategists and supporters are intimidated and disgusted at what they see as the crass exploitation of the deceased leader’s name by the government.

“They should let him rest in peace now. In our country, we don’t stir up the dead, we leave them quiet to enjoy their eternal rest,” said Elmira Pereira, 33, a shopkeeper in southern Bolivar state attending a Capriles rally.

“Maduro should have the courage to campaign on his own.”

14 percent lead

Polls show the 50-year-old former bus driver, whom Chavez named his successor before dying, leading Capriles by at least 14 percentage points.

However, opposition leaders have said the latest clutch of opinion polls were taken in the immediate aftermath of Chavez’s death, and they hope that new surveys due in coming days will show Capriles closing the gap as the sympathy factor wears off.

Though the fresh memories of Chavez may win him the vote, Maduro faces a tricky task beyond April 14 putting state finances back in order after blowout election-year spending in 2012 and balancing a disparate coalition that for years was kept in line by the sheer personality of the president.