In slum of Chavez's political birth, a tomb and baseball diamond

CARACAS Fri Mar 8, 2013 7:30pm EST

A supporter of Venezuela's late President Hugo Chavez holds a doll of him as she stands outside a military academy where the funeral ceremony for Chavez is held, in Caracas March 8, 2013. REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez

A supporter of Venezuela's late President Hugo Chavez holds a doll of him as she stands outside a military academy where the funeral ceremony for Chavez is held, in Caracas March 8, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Jorge Dan Lopez

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CARACAS (Reuters) - Slum dweller Juan Carlos Villamizar bid farewell to Hugo Chavez on Friday, crediting the late Venezuelan leader with saving his life in the same poor district where Chavez saw the birth of his own political rise.

A devoted servant of the socialist cadres in the "23 de enero" hillside community where Chavez launched a coup attempt in 1992, Villamizar credits an 11th hour intervention by the president's office for putting him on a plane to Cuba for delicate surgery to fix a broken neck.

It was one of several times their paths crossed.

Both underwent complex operations in Havana after voting at the same polling station in the election in October that gave Chavez a new six-year term.

Both fell into comas. One lived. The other died. Chavez was 58. Villamizar is about to turn 59.

At the polls in October, Villamizar bumped into an army captain he knew and mentioned he had been waiting a year for a public hospital in Venezuela to fix the neck he broke in a fall.

"The captain picked up the phone and dialed the presidential palace.... A week and a half later I was on my way to Cuba," he said with joy on Friday while watching a live broadcast of Chavez's state funeral attended by dozens of heads of state.

Villamizar said Chavez's partnership with communist Cuba helped Venezuela make important strides in health and education, and he paid tribute to the socialist leader's deep emotional connection to the poor.

"There's nobody like Chavez," Villamizar said. "We have always been an oppressed country, but he showed the people great affection.

He recalled how he hugged and shook hands with Chavez at the same voting precinct in the "23 de enero" slum during an election in 2006. The moment was recorded by Venezuelan TV, and Villamizar played a clip of it again on Friday on the Korean-made computer in his modest apartment.

Chavez formed community groups to run everything from food programs to health clinics in poor neighborhoods such as this one, ignored for decades by a narrow political elite.

The groups replicated across Venezuela and developed close ties to the government, becoming a foundation of Chavez's political movement during his 14 years in power.

They will now go to work for Chavez's hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro, who is favored to beat centrist opposition candidate Henrique Capriles in a presidential election in the next few weeks.

Maduro will benefit from the surge of emotion following Chavez's death Tuesday, although he lacks his charisma.

Chavez's verve, penetrating gaze, sense of humor and often antagonistic style captivated the masses even as he repelled the rich.

"He was magnetic. Watching him speak on TV was like watching an adventure film that went on for hours," Villamizar said.

He and his wife, Milagros Perez, were active in left-wing politics before the magniloquent and quixotic Chavez won his first presidential election in 1998. Their adult children have also served in the community cadres.

Pictures of Chavez hang on the walls of their living room, intermixed with photos of their family.

In a nearby plaza, a mural based on the Last Supper depicts Christ flanked by Marx, Chavez, Fidel Castro and Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the Argentine doctor who became a hero of the Cuban revolution.

"For us, Chavez and Che are the same. And Maduro now," said Alejandro Espinosa, 60, sitting beneath another mural.

THE TOMB AND A BASEBALL DIAMOND

A few blocks away stands a majestic, century-old building that once served as the army's headquarters.

Chavez used the turreted edifice, which sits on hills near the presidential palace, as his command center when he tried to overthrow free-market President Carlos Andres Perez in 1992.

At the front gate, a silver torch to commemorate the uprising burns in the tropical sun with a plaque that reads: "The birth of hope."

Inside, construction workers are hastily building a tomb for Chavez and officials have promised to display his embalmed body there "for eternity."

The fort-like building has a commanding view of the verdant hills of Caracas and overlooks a diamond for playing Chavez's favorite sport: baseball.

His love for America's pastime was matched only by his penchant for bashing Washington's "imperialism."

On the road leading to what will be Chavez's tomb, Nelson Santana, 60, was painting a sign on a wall in curvy red letters that read "Until forever comandante!" and "Chavez Lives!"

Revolutionary folk songs blared from outdoor speakers and people guzzled bottles of beer in outdoor bars - flouting a ban on alcohol sales during Chavez's funeral.

Hovering over Santana were two young men in combat boots, green army pants and red bandannas tied around their necks identifying them as members of the La Piedrita "colectivo" - one of the many armed squads of die-hard Chavistas who patrol slums and, critics say, dispense vigilante justice.

The colectivos mobilized entire neighborhoods to take to the streets demanding Chavez be restored to power after he was deposed by opponents in a two-day coup in 2002.

Santana said it was fitting that Chavez's body would be put on display in this part of Caracas.

"We are delighted he is coming back to a combative neighborhood like this. He will be with us in our actions," he said. "I feel him here with me while I'm painting. Chavez did not die on March 5. He multiplied a million times over."

(Additional reporting Girish Gupta; Editing by Daniel Wallis, Kieran Murray and Cynthia Osterman)

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