CARACAS (Reuters) - Within hours of Hugo Chavez’s death, makeshift altars were going up in homes and on street corners around Venezuela with candles, photos and offerings for the late president.
Weeping beside his coffin, supporters are likening him to independence hero Simon Bolivar and even Jesus Christ. Ministers quote his words and precepts in reverential tones.
Having fostered a cult of personality during his extraordinary life, Chavez is fast being deified in death.
The outpouring of love and mythologizing of Chavez may seem over-the-top to detractors, but the sentiments run deep for millions of supporters who adored his flamboyant style and attention to the poor while overlooking his autocratic side.
As Chavez lays in state, a major question for Venezuela is whether such fervor will guarantee an afterlife for his quirky and personal nationalist-socialist movement, “Chavismo.”
“As a faith and a doctrine, there is no doubt that ‘Chavismo’ is here to stay. Its preservation in power is, of course, harder to predict,” said influential local analyst and ruling Socialist Party member Nicmer Evans.
“Any movement, be it Chavismo, Peronismo or Zapatismo, will obviously have its ups and downs,” he added, referring to movements inspired by Argentina’s former populist leader Juan Peron and his wife, Eva Peron, and by Mexican revolutionary leader Emilio Zapata.
In the short term, “Chavismo” appears to have as fairly safe grip on the South American OPEC nation with 29 million people and the world’s largest oil reserves. Chavez’s chosen successor, Nicolas Maduro, is the interim president and is favored to win a new election due in weeks.
Beyond the election, though, there is less certainty over whether Maduro will be able to keep a lid on competing rivalries within the movement, particularly the faction around Congress chief Diosdado Cabello, or to reproduce Chavez’s love affair with Venezuelans given a plethora of grassroots problems.
He lacks his late boss’s legendary charisma, sense of humor and thundering rhetorical skills, but Maduro for now has the crucial advantage over any would-be competitor inside or outside the Socialist Party: Chavez’s blessing.
He also did a pretty good job of imitating Chavez’s physical stamina this week - walking for hours behind his coffin in a swollen crowd under the Caribbean sun, then standing on ceremony during mourning until nearly midnight.
Though plenty of mainstream ‘Chavistas’ openly acknowledge lukewarm feelings towards Maduro, compared to their passion for Chavez, they are pledging obedience to their hero’s dying wish.
“Chavez, I promise you, my vote is for Maduro!” is one of several new chants that have sprung up this week.
“There will never be anyone like him. I have so much to thank him for,” said Berta Colmenaries, 77, after queuing with tens of thousands of others to file past Chavez’s casket.
“I will vote for Maduro - who else? Chavez told us to, and we have to do what he says.”
Chavez’s endorsement of Maduro came in his emotional last speech to the nation, just before leaving for his fourth and final cancer operation in Cuba in December. That immediately imbued Maduro with a new and exalted status.
An opinion poll a few days before Chavez’s death gave Maduro a 14 percentage point lead over presumed opposition rival Henrique Capriles. A vote is meant to be called within 30 days of Chavez’s death on Tuesday, but there is talk of a possible postponement to give election authorities more time to prepare.
Bursting onto the political stage with an unsuccessful military coup in 1992, Chavez skillfully brought together and fronted a heterogeneous movement of hardline leftist ideologues, military buddies, former guerrillas, political pragmatists and opportunistic entrepreneurs.
Key figures range from Cabello, a powerful military man with widespread business interests, to Finance Minister Jorge Giordani, a former Marxist professor once nicknamed “The Monk.”
Despite enormous differences of personality and background, Chavez, a former paratrooper, managed to unite them all behind the nebulous flag of “Bolivarianism,” in homage to Simon Bolivar, the hero of South America’s 19th century war against Spanish colonial rule.
To opponents, the only unifying factors for “Chavismo” were Chavez and a lust for power.
Besides Bolivar, Chavez drew on a mixed bag of ideological influences, from 19th century Venezuelan land crusader Ezequiel Zamora to Argentine radical Norberto Ceresole, whose denial of the Holocaust made him perennially controversial.
The Argentine’s vision for a union of “the strongman, the people, and the armed forces” helped shape Chavez’s fusion of military authoritarianism with grassroots citizens’ networks that use state resources to fix local problems.
Those ideas helped him create direct economic and political links to voters, sidestepping clumsy state bureaucracy through social programs known as “missions” and community councils that solve local problems with state funds.
It also gave the military a role in governance that has been unprecedented in Venezuela’s post-dictatorship history since 1958, putting soldiers at the helm of everything from social development projects to state-backed agricultural schemes.
One former soldier, Cabello, is widely seen by Venezuelans as a potential future challenger to Maduro for leadership of the movement - despite their current public professions of unity.
“The warring factions within ‘Chavismo’ are united now, but it is far from clear Maduro can keep them that way,” the London-based LatinNews think tank wrote in an analysis.
“Chavez learnt to control the military but Nicolas Maduro, if he is elected in the near future, will find it much more difficult to do so and a military coup cannot be ruled out in the years ahead. ... When troubles come, Maduro will have a real challenge keeping Chavismo united.”
Maduro also will have to cope with hundreds of armed militants whose blind loyalty to Chavez has often turned into violence against his opponents, such as attacks on private media and opposition demonstrators.
The bands, known as “colectivos,” are largely based in shantytowns, have been arming heavily in recent days according to locals, and view Maduro with suspicion as potentially too lightweight to continue Chavez’s revolution.
Beyond any potential internal threats, Maduro has his work cut out fulfilling Chavez’s vows upon re-election last year to improve efficiency in tackling day-to-day problems of crime, power cuts, inflation and corruption in government.
Not to mention his mammoth big-picture economic tasks: increasing stagnant crude output, taming one of the world’s highest inflation rates, dealing with a black market currency rate four times the official level, and diversifying the oil-dependent economy.
The packing of courts, the election board and other public bodies with his supporters was a major guarantor of stability for ‘Chavismo’ but a source of fury to opponents and embarrassment to some foreign allies.
Among myriad tributes to Chavez was one from Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the former Brazilian president, who tempered his praise with criticism of the concentration of power and erosion of institutions in Venezuela under Chavez.
“Mr. Chavez’s sympathizers in Venezuela have much work ahead of them to construct and strengthen democratic institutions,” Lula wrote in a newspaper column.
“They will have to help make the political system more organic and transparent, to make political participation more accessible, to enhance dialogue with opposition parties, and to strengthen unions and civil society groups.”
Such weighty considerations are, though, for now far from the minds of Chavez’s passionate supporters.
“What’s coming in Venezuela’s immediate future is more Chavez,” said Information Minister Ernesto Villegas. “He has not gone, he lives in all of us.”
Additional reporting by Patricia Velez, Mario Naranjo, Enrique Andres Pretel, Marianna Parraga and Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Daniel Wallis, Kieran Murray, Doina Chiacu