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Hugo Chavez's legacy gains religious glow; he's declared 'Christ of the Americas' in Venezuela

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CARACAS, Venezuela - 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 saviour 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 neighbourhood 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."

Of course, politics and religion have long mixed in Latin America, starting with the Spanish conquest of the New World, which Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes famously said was carried out "between sword and cross."

In the 20th century, Argentine first lady Eva Peron helped start a leftist Latin American pantheon after her untimely death in 1952. She's since become a veritable saint for millions in her homeland, with pictures of her angelic face still commonly displayed in homes and government offices. Like Chavez, Peron was worshipped as a protector of the poor as well as a political fighter.

Chavez tied his own legacy to Bolivar, incessantly invoking his name and delivering hundreds of speeches with Bolivar's stern portrait looming over his shoulder. Chavez renamed the whole country "The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela" and ordered a giant mausoleum built to house Bolivar's bones.

A short animated spot shown repeatedly on state TV this month makes clear that Chavez has already become a political saint for millions. It shows Chavez, after death, walking the western Venezuelan plains of his childhood before coming across Peron, Bolivar, the martyred Chilean President Salvador Allende and Argentine revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara, among others.

"We know that in Argentina we have a Peronism that is very much alive," said Acosta-Alzuru. "And there are other examples in Latin America where a leader, a caudillo, tries to be everything for the country. What Maduro and Chavez's followers are doing is trying to keep Chavez alive."

Some Chavez supporters waiting to visit his tomb on a hill overlooking Caracas said their comandante is with them in spirit — and for that reason they planned to vote for Maduro, confident that Chavez was guiding his hand.

Reaching the marble tomb means first walking through an exhibit celebrating Chavez's life and military career, with photos and text exalting a seemingly inevitable rise to immortality.

"He's still alive," said 52-year-old nurse Gisela Averdano. "He hasn't died. For me, he will always continue."

___

AP writers James Anderson and Christopher Toothaker contributed to this report.

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