CARACAS (Reuters) - Visitors tip-toe round a marble sarcophagus holding Hugo Chavez’s remains. Supporters sob as his voice booms from speakers. Foreign tourists photograph displays of his life from precocious rural schoolboy to radical president.
An army barracks on a Caracas hilltop has been transformed into a shrine and museum for the late president whose death a month ago shook Venezuela.
Even after death, Chavez continues to dominate politics, with presidential elections to be held on April 14 cast as a battle to continue or break with “Chavismo” socialism.
In the days leading up to the polls, hundreds of people still come to pay their respects to Chavez every day.
“They come from many places, many countries,” said 75-year-old Alba Antunes, who works as a guide at the imposing century-old building chosen to house Chavez’s coffin.
“His memory and his spirit will live forever here.”
Chavez died of cancer on March 5 after ruling for 14 years, releasing an outpouring of mourning from millions of supporters of a type not seen for a leader in Latin America since the death of Argentina’s Eva Peron six decades ago.
Chavez’s body lay in state for 10 days of official mourning, then was paraded to the ornate building that already served as a museum for a failed military coup in 1992 that launched the then lieutenant-colonel’s political career.
Plans to embalm Chavez were left too late and it has yet to be decided whether he will be buried permanently in his rural hometown of Sabaneta, or in the grandiose National Pantheon building in Caracas.
Appropriately, his current resting place perches on the edge of the “23rd of January” slum, which is home to Chavez’s most militant supporters, and overlooks the presidential palace where he ruled after winning power in a 1998 election.
In scenes that would have delighted the sports- and party-loving Chavez, salsa music throbs from the hillsides while children play baseball on dusty grounds.
“What better place for him than here? He emerged from the people, and now he remains with them,” said one soldier, Jose Herrera, helping shepherd visitors into the compound.
Chavez’s legacy is a controversial one: was he a daring champion of the poor, a bullying autocrat, or a mix of both?
For detractors, the emotion over Chavez’s death has obscured darker sides of his rule: jail or exile for political opponents, shambolic economic management, and an obsessive, authoritarian, one-man style of government.
Acting President Nicolas Maduro presents himself as Chavez’s political “son” and his election campaign is based largely on promises that he will continue popular social welfare policies.
Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles says Maduro is a pale imitation of Chavez, and that it is time to move on.
In the museum, freshly painted and remodeled around the marble coffin at its center, visitors are quiet and reflective as they ponder both Chavez’s life and this month’s election.
“The feelings are very deep. It’s almost as if there’s no hope. We believed commander Chavez would take the country forward. Now we see him lying there and we don’t know what is going to happen,” said lawyer Jean-Carlos Mendoza, 32.
“Chavez was very intelligent and had his reasons for choosing Maduro as his successor. We wonder why he chose Maduro, perhaps it was because of his good foreign relations,” he added, referring to Maduro’s six years as foreign minister.
Around the sarcophagus, two huge paintings of Chavez’s face hang opposite two portraits of Venezuela’s most revered son, independence hero Simon Bolivar. In a chapel to one side, photos of Chavez praying and holding a crucifix flank an altar.
Most visitors make the sign of the cross and briefly touch the raised black coffin as they walk round it. While the vast majority are followers of the dead leader, even some critics have come to see his coffin and pay their respects.
“I was never a Chavez supporter. He did a lot of damage to our country, and everyone seems to be forgetting that now. But I will never show disrespect for the dead,” said business student Antonio Rodriguez, 24, after laying a hand on the marble.
In other rooms, pictures and texts pay homage to Chavez’s extraordinary and turbulent life, from his early days selling sweets on the streets of Sabaneta to help his grandmother make ends meet, to last year’s re-election triumph.
Black-and-white photos show him honing his speaking skills as he compered a local beauty pageant, playing baseball for the army, leaving jail in 1994 after a two-year imprisonment for his coup attempt, surviving a brief coup himself in 2002, then flying to Cuba from 2011 for long periods of cancer treatment.
A timeline has sections explaining some of Chavez’s most popular polices: the ‘Barrio Adentro’ (‘Inside the Slum’) medical clinics and the Mercal chain of subsidized food stores.
One enormous photo in the last exhibition room shows Chavez’s back turned, standing on a stage in the pouring rain, as he addressed ecstatic supporters in Caracas for his last 2012 presidential campaign rally. It was to be his last public rally.
“It’s hard to look at it without crying,” said Antunes, the guide. Her husband was a soldier and mixed with Chavez during his time in the military.
“You know, in those days, they always used to say among themselves, the other soldiers, that one day he’d be president. Now he’ll always be our president - the only one who cared for us, the poor, the only real president Venezuela ever had.”
Editing by Daniel Wallis, Kieran Murray and David Brunnstrom