In life Hugo Chavez was hailed as a savior by the poor of Venezuela. In death he has acquired mythical proportions, venerated as a saintly father who even, it is claimed, makes regular spiritual visitations to his presidential successor. Now, according to the ruling Socialist party, he is something akin to God.
A version of the "Lord's Prayer" which closed a Socialist party workshop in Caracas substituted the late Venezuelan leader for God, beseeching the heavenly Chavez to lead the country away from the temptations of Capitalism.
"Our Chavez who art in heaven, in the earth, in the sea and in us, the delegates," a red-shirted party member recited on Monday in front of Chavez's hand-picked heir, President Nicolas Maduro.
"Hallowed be your name, may your legacy come to us so we can spread it to people here and elsewhere. Give us your light to guide us every day," Maria Estrella Uribe said in front of an image of Chavez.
"Lead us not into the temptation of capitalism, deliver us from the evil of the oligarchy, like the crime of contraband, because ours is the homeland, the peace and life forever and ever. Amen. Viva Chavez!" she concluded to applause.
Since Chavez's death from cancer in March 2013, the already thriving cult of personality surrounding the architect of Venezuela's Bolivarian Revolution has gone into overdrive. His image and words loom over Caracas from walls and billboards; chavistas pay homage to his memory on an almost daily basis and his spirit is frequently invoked by Maduro, who claims to regularly converse with the departed revolutionary and often sleeps in his mausoleum.
An almost omnipresent figure in Venezuelan life, the Comandante was the charismatic driving force of the Bolivarian Revolution, captivating supporters with grandiose orations on the evils of imperialism and folky tales of his exploits. He won the adoration of millions by funneling the country's oil wealth into misiones — social programs — to improve the lives of the impoverished.
So central was he that his loss — at a time when economic woes, corruption and insecurity was eating into the government's popularity — prompted speculation over whether the revolution would die with him. Many doubted whether Maduro, the pliable, softly spoken former foreign minister, could fill Chavez's mighty shoes or keep hold of the socialist project in the now deeply divided country. The election triggered by his death was the closest since Chavez took office in 1999 and, for a moment, it looked like the opposition's time had finally come. But, united in grief, the chavistas rallied, cries of "We are all Chavez" rang through the streets of Caracas and, in the end, Maduro beat his rival, Henrique Capriles Radonski, by a razor thin majority of 1.5 percent.
Maduro has effectively painted himself as Chavez's representative on earth, claiming to frequently see the late leader on the Avila mountain that overlooks Caracas.
Maduro has effectively painted himself as Chavez's representative on earth, claiming to frequently see the late leader on the Avila mountain that overlooks Caracas. He has said that Chavez has appeared to him in the form of a little bird, on several occasions emitting a tweeting sound to refer to the leftist during public addresses. In October 2013, he proclaimed that "Chavez is everywhere" as he reported that the former president's face had appeared to construction workers in a Caracas subway.
Recently, Maduro has stepped up his focus on the teaching of Socialist ideology, already disseminated through classes and textbooks in Venezuelan public schools, as well as universities such as the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela (Bolivarian University of Venezuela).
At this week's workshop for "the design of the system of Socialist formation," he insisted that the revolution was entering a phase "which demands ever more formation of its values."
"When we ask ourselves what values we must form, and when we ask ourselves where we should form those values, there is just one answer: we must form in ourselves the values of Chavez in the daily struggle in the street, creating, constructing revolution, making revolution," he told delegates.
But in Venezuela — brimming with shopping malls and with an inherent love of consumerism built on its vast oil riches — that has been no easy task. Socialist ideology does not have the long history that it does in Cuba, Venezuela's closest ally. The country also still has a vocal wealthy elite that is deeply resistant to the changes underway and regards the controversial former leader as just as diabolical as he is angelic to his supporters.
"There is a much larger middle class in Venezuela than there is in Cuba," Larry Birns, director of the Council for Hemispheric Affairs, told VICE News, adding that "if anything, Cuba is in somewhat better shape than Venezuela is, and there is generally less of a feeling of repression in Cuba than there is in Venezuela."
He said that there were many in the Bolivarian movement who were motivated by "opportunistic reasons" rather than true principles, but added that "there are those who believe what they say they believe."
"For many in the movement, Chavez, or the movement of the Chavistas towards a religious stance, is less a matter of faith than it is a matter of strategy."
Birns noted that the Chavez movement had throughout its history made use of religious symbolism. But, he said: "For many in the movement, Chavez, or the movement of the Chavistas towards a religious stance, is less a matter of faith than it is a matter of strategy. On the other hand, there are large numbers of religious (people) who can primarily be found amongst the poor."
The quasi-religious fervor surrounding the figure of Chavez has rankled deeply with the Venezuelan Catholic Church, which, as an influential and often vocal critic of Socialist policies, has long had a fractious relationship with the government.
The country's bishops have lined up to condemn the insertion of Chavez into "The Lord's Prayer." Ulises Gutierrez, the archbishop of Ciudad Bolivar, said on Twitter that the act was "blasphemy." The bishops of Caracas expressed respect for the affection many Venezuelans had for Chavez, but said in a statement that "'Our Father' forms part of the sacred heritage of the Catholic Church and of all the Christian churches in the entire world," and that "it is not right to modify it, manipulate it, use it as a tool. The Catholics demand that 'Our Father' is respected."
But the worship of Chavez is unlikely to end anytime soon. The attachment to his legacy was "immensely important" for the Socialists, Birns said. "His majesty has not faded to the average Venezuelan. They remember that before Chavez the rich looked upon the poor as invisible, even scum."
Despite Venezuela's hardships, provided the chavistas managed to sustain state support for the poor, they would maintain power, Birns predicted. "As long as they (the poor) get this, they will feel grateful, because before Chavez there was nothing."
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Photo by __Valter Campanato _via _Flickr