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Chavez's legacy gains religious glow in Venezuela

Sunday - 3/31/2013, 6:06am  ET

FILE - In this March 19, 2013 file photo, kiss marks left by supporters of Venezuela's former President Hugo Chavez cover a photograph of him hanging on a wall during the annual book fair in Caracas, Venezuela. For his loyal followers, Chavez was already a living legend on par with independence era hero Simon Bolivar even before his March 5 death from cancer. In a mere three weeks, however, Chavez has ascended to divine status, at least according to political rhetoric, as the government and his die-hard loyalists build a religious mythology around him ahead of April 14 elections scheduled to pick a new leader. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano, File)

JACK CHANG
Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- Holding a Bible in her arms at the start of Holy Week, seamstress Maria Munoz waited patiently to visit the tomb of the man she considers another savior of humanity.

The 64-year-old said she had already turned her humble one-bedroom house into a shrine devoted to the late President Hugo Chavez, complete with busts, photos and coffee mugs bearing his image. Now, she said, her brother-in-law was looking for a larger house to display six boxes' worth of Chavez relics that her family has collected throughout his political career.

"He saved us from so many politicians who came before him," Munoz said as tears welled in her eyes. "He saved us from everything."

Chavez's die-hard followers considered him a living legend on a par with independence-era hero Simon Bolivar well before his March 5 death from cancer. In the mere three weeks since, however, Chavez has ascended to divine status in this deeply Catholic country as the government and Chavistas build a religious mythology around him ahead of April 14 elections to pick a new leader.

Chavez's hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro, has led the way, repeatedly calling the late president "the redeemer Christ of the Americas" and describing Chavistas, including himself, as "apostles."

Maduro went even further after Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis earlier this month. Maduro said Chavez had advised Jesus Christ in heaven that it was time for a South American pope.

That comes as Maduro's government loops ads on state TV comparing Chavez to sainted heroes such as Bolivar and puts up countless banners around the capital emblazoned with Chavez's image and the message "From his hands sprouts the rain of life."

"President Chavez is in heaven," Maduro told a March 16 rally in the poor Caracas neighborhood of Catia. "I don't have any doubt that if any man who walked this earth did what was needed so that Christ the redeemer would give him a seat at his side, it was our redeemer liberator of the 21st century, the comandante Hugo Chavez."

Chavistas such as Munoz have filled Venezuela with murals, posters and other artwork showing Chavez in holy poses surrounded by crosses, rosary beads and other religious symbolism.

One poster on sale in downtown Caracas depicts Chavez holding a shining gold cross in his hands beside a quote from the Book of Joshua: "Comrade, be not afraid. Neither be dismayed, for I Will be with you each instant." The original scripture says "Lord thy God," and not "I," will accompany humanity each instant.

The late leader had encouraged such treatment as he built an elaborate cult of personality and mythologized his own rise to power, said Carolina Acosta-Alzuru, a University of Georgia media studies scholar who hails from Venezuela.

She said Chavez's successors are clearly hoping that pumping up that mythology can boost Maduro's presidential campaign, which has been based almost entirely on promises to continue Chavez's legacy. The opposition candidate, Gov. Henrique Capriles, counters that Maduro isn't Chavez, and highlights the problems that Chavez left behind such as soaring crime and inflation.

"They're fast-tracking the mythification," Acosta-Alzuru said of the government. "Sometimes I feel that Venezuelan politics has become a big church. Sometimes I feel it has become a big mausoleum."

Teacher Geraldine Escalona said she believed Chavez had served a divine purpose during his 58 years on earth, including launching free housing and education programs and pushing the cause of Latin American unity.

"God used him for this, for unifying our country and Latin America," the 22-year-old said. "I saw him as a kind of God."

Such rhetoric has upset some religious leaders and drawn the reproach of Venezuela's top Roman Catholic official, Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino, on the eve of the Easter holidays.

"One can't equate any hero or human leader or authority with Jesus Christ," Urosa warned. "We can't equate the supernatural and religious sphere with the natural, earthly and sociopolitical."

Chavez, in his days, crossed paths frequently with Venezuela's church, which sometimes accused the socialist leader of becoming increasingly authoritarian. Chavez described Christ as a socialist, and he strongly criticized Cardinal Urosa, saying he misled the Vatican with warnings that Venezuela was drifting toward dictatorship.

Emerging this week from a church on the outskirts of Caracas, Lizbeth Colmenares slammed politicians from both sides for using derogatory language in the campaign, particularly during Holy Week.

"They are not following the words of Christ," said Colmenares, a 67-year old retiree who was holding palm fronds woven into the shape of the Holy Cross. "They should be more humble and they shouldn't be attacking each other that way."

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