"A vote for Maduro is a vote for Chavez," proclaims a banner strung across a veranda in the 23 de Enero housing project overlooking the presidential palace in Caracas.
The slogan comes from La Piedrita, one of a dozen or so armed, pro-government "collectives" that have carved out territories in the teeming western barrios of the Venezuelan capital. Their endorsement of Nicolas Maduro, the late president Hugo Chavez’s long-serving foreign minister and anointed successor, counts for a great deal in these dusty streets adorned with revolutionary murals.
Loyalty to "the process," as they call Chavez’s 14-year rule, is sometimes enforced at gunpoint, but there is undeniable fervour here too. It is not for the rather uninspiring Maduro, the acting president and Chavista candidate in a presidential election today, April 14. Rather it is for the man whose body lies in a glass-topped coffin 100 yards or so away.
The military museum in 23 de Enero served as Chavez’s headquarters when, as an army officer, he led an abortive military coup in 1992. Although he later came to power through the ballot box, he governed like a uniformed autocrat before dying of cancer on March 5, five months after his third re-election. His body was transferred to the museum, where supporters still come to pay their last respects.
Maduro’s main rival is Henrique Capriles, who as the opposition’s candidate last October lost to Chavez by 11 percentage points. Capriles, the governor of Miranda State, which includes most of Caracas, is a centrist. In what has been an unusually brief campaign, he has managed to reinject some energy into the opposition, demoralized by its defeat in the presidential vote and in regional elections last year. His closing rally in the capital on April 7 was huge.
Capriles insists that he will trounce Maduro, despite the more serious opinion polls, which show him trailing by at least 10 points. He faces familiar obstacles: The electoral authority once again has failed to prevent the Chavista campaign’s blatant and unconstitutional use of state resources. The chairman of the state oil company, Rafael Ramirez, is head of voter mobilization for the Maduro campaign. Admiral Diego Molero, the defence minister, says that the mission of the armed forces is to "put Maduro in the presidency."
It is hard to walk more than a few yards in central Caracas without seeing Chavez’s face on posters, some several stories high, or hearing his voice blasted from loudspeakers. A prominent campaign poster features the dead leader’s photograph and signature alongside the phrase, "Maduro, from my heart." It is a quote from his last speech, in which he urged his followers to elect Maduro as his successor.
The candidate makes a virtue of having few ideas beyond a pledge to carry out everything that his former boss intended. One new promise is to crack down on crime, a problem Chavez always ignored. This week Maduro said that he would raise the minimum wage by as much as 45 per cent this year. He tries to imitate Chavez’s showmanship, playing a guitar and singing during rallies. He launches similar tirades, blaming crime on "capitalist values" and past governments. Chronic blackouts are the result of opposition sabotage, says the acting president, who has deployed the army to protect power stations.
The government campaign has strayed well beyond hero-worship toward deification. For years Chavez’s most fervent supporters claimed that he had been "sent by God" to help the poor, pointing to his social "missions" that provide subsidized goods and services. Now it is official: Chavez is "the Christ of America" who "gave his life for each one of us," according to Maduro.
So close is he to God that he helped to ensure the election of a Latin American pope, which occurred shortly after he died. The candidate even said, without apparent irony, that the dead president appeared to him in the form of a little bird and that they sang to each other.
Opposite the military museum now stands a small shrine, erected with public funds, to "Saint Hugo of the 23 de Enero." Other parishes are putting up similar memorials.
"We don’t want him beatified," says Eva Garcia, who helps look after the flowers, the candles and the bust of Chavez, "but people do pray to him. He must be close to God, because of all his good works."
Around her neck is a rosary, in revolutionary red, featuring a photo of the late president in place of the Virgin Mary.
The Catholic church is not amused.
"Chavez is a human being, like all of us," said the archbishop of Caracas, Cardinal Jorge Urosa. "Chavez can’t be compared to Christ."
The government is unrepentant. Maduro, a long-standing Marxist-Leninist, even refers to April 14 as "resurrection day." That it is the anniversary of Chavez’s return to power after he was briefly overthrown in a 2002 coup helps drive the point home.
In his campaign Capriles has stressed that "Maduro isn’t Chavez." In contrast to his avoidance last year of direct confrontation with the president, this time he has mocked his opponent, scorning him as a lightweight. He points out that Maduro’s acting presidency has seen a big devaluation, the rising scarcity of basic goods, a continuing increase in violent crime and lengthy power cuts.
Capriles promises that, if elected, he would end corruption and political discrimination. He also says that he would expel Cuban officers from the armed forces. Maduro’s close ties to Cuba’s leaders, who appeared to broker his installation as acting president, grate with some Venezuelans.
Maduro also may be hurt by the economy. Inflation in March alone was 2.8 per cent, suggesting that the annual rate will top 30 per cent by the end of 2013.
"This will be a year of lean cows," says Miguel, a mechanic who plans to vote for Capriles. "And they’re going to be very lean."
Much will hinge on whether loyalty to the late president’s cause is enough to overcome the doubts many Chavistas harbour as to the competence of their new leader and the integrity of his aides.
"I believe in the honesty and sincerity of Maduro," says Carlos Cordero, a former special-forces sergeant who endured a nine-hour bus ride from the eastern city of Puerto Ordaz to say farewell to Chavez, "but not that of the people around him."
Maduro may find that winning the election is easier than governing.