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 to be another savior of humanity.
The 64-year-old said she had already turned her humble one-bedroom house into a shrine devoted to late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. Now, her brother-in-law was looking for a larger house to display six boxes’ worth of Chavez relics that her family collected throughout his political career, she said.
“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 diehard followers considered him a living legend on a par with Venezuelan independence hero Simon Bolivar well before his March 5 death from cancer. However, in the three weeks since then, Chavez has ascended to divine status in the deeply Catholic country as the government and Chavistas build a religious mythology around him ahead of the country’s April 14 elections.
Acting Venezuelan president 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 last month. Maduro said Chavez had advised Jesus in heaven that it was time for a South American pope.
Maduro’s government is looping ads on state television comparing Chavez to sainted heroes and has put up countless banners around the capital, Caracas, bearing 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. 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 encouraged such treatment as he built an elaborate cult of personality and mythologized his rise to power, said Carolina Acosta-Alzuru, a University of Georgia academic from Venezuela.
She said Chavez’s successors are clearly hoping that pumping up that mythology can boost Maduro’s presidential campaign, which is based almost entirely on promises to continue Chavez’s legacy.
The opposition candidate, Miranda State Governor Henrique Capriles, counters that Maduro is not Chavez, and highlights the problems that Chavez left behind, such as soaring crime and inflation.
“Sometimes I feel that Venezuelan politics has become a big church. Sometimes I feel it has become a big mausoleum,” Acosta-Alzuru said.
Teacher Geraldine Escalona said she believed Chavez 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 religious leaders and drawn the reproach of Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino, Venezuela’s top Catholic official, on the eve of the Easter holidays.
“One can’t equate any hero or human leader or authority with Jesus Christ,” Urosa said. “We can’t equate the supernatural and religious sphere with the natural, earthly and sociopolitical.”
While in power, Chavez crossed paths frequently with Venezuela’s church, which sometimes accused him of becoming increasingly authoritarian. Chavez described Christ as a socialist and he strongly criticized Urosa, saying he misled the Vatican with warnings that Venezuela was drifting toward dictatorship.
Emerging last 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. “They should be more humble and they shouldn’t be attacking each other that way.”
Politics and religion have long mixed in Latin America, starting with the Spanish conquest of the New World, which Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes said was carried out “between sword and cross.”
Chavez tied his own legacy to Bolivar, incessantly invoking his name and delivering hundreds of speeches with Bolivar’s portrait over his shoulder. He renamed the country “The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela” and built a giant mausoleum built to house Bolivar’s bones.
An animated short shown repeatedly on state TV makes clear that Chavez is already a political saint for millions. It shows him, after death, walking the Venezuelan plains of his childhood before coming across former Argentine first lady Eva Peron, Bolivar, former Chilean president Salvador Allende and Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara, among others.
Several Chavistas waiting to visit his tomb said their comandante is with them in spirit and that is why they planned to vote for Maduro, confident that Chavez was guiding his hand.