Venezuela is holding a week-long festivities honoring late Hugo Chavez’s birthday, almost five months since his death on March 5.
Hugo Chavez, who dominated Venezuela’s political scene from the moment he took office in 1999 to his death on March 5, would have turned 59 on Sunday.
President Nicolas Maduro is marking the occasion with public dances and concerts. He even plans to go house-to-house in some neighborhoods bearing gifts and a message from the “supreme comandante.”
Hugo Chavez’s legacy however has divided the country, with about half the population blaming him or Nicolas Maduro for the country’s miserable economy and sky-high crime rate.
Ground zero for the Chavez worship is the Cuartel de la Montana, an old fort on a Caracas hillside deep within a working-class pro-government neighborhood. Over the years it has housed a military academy, government offices, and a military museum.
Today it is also a mausoleum for the late leader, who died after a long battle with cancer that captivated the nation’s attention for months.
Hugo Chavez’s marble sarcophagus is protected by an honor guard, and every day at 4:25 p.m. a cannon is fired to mark the moment he died.
Nicolas Maduro was at the Cuartel on Sunday, and surrounded by the most senior government and military officials he celebrated Hugo Chavez’s birthday by vowing to continue the late leader’s policies.
The self-declared “first Chavista president”, 50 year-old former bus driver Nicolas Maduro promised to battle crime and corruption, and urged Venezuelans to have faith in the government’s policies.
“There are two models: that of the stateless bourgeoisie and the Chavista and Bolivarian, but only one path – that which Chavez left us,” Nicolas Maduro concluded, amid a burst of fireworks and as musicians began to play Happy Birthday.
Just outside the Cuartel, at the crest of a hill of tightly-packed dwellings adorned with murals of Hugo Chavez, stands a small chapel with painted wood walls and tin roof that overflows with flowers and candles.
At the altar a poster of the “eternal comandante” is placed under a cross and next to a clay bust of the late leader.
Many Venezuelans are still adapting to the post-Chavez world, but as time goes by the shock of his death is giving way to the struggles of everyday life.
Many loyalists, or Chavistas, acknowledge that things are tough and support Nicolas Maduro – but others grumble that Maduro isn’t up to the task.
Critics say Hugo Chavez’s 14 years in power were a disaster, and point to Venezuela’s 25% inflation rate, the erratic availability of goods, and a hair-raising crime rate that resulted in 16,000 murders in 2012.
Henrique Capriles has been careful to avoid offending Hugo Chavez in public and has asked the government to let the late president “rest in peace”. But he has let loose on Nicolas Maduro, accusing him of using the image of his charismatic predecessor to “cover up the problems” of Venezuela – which he claims have worsened since Maduro took office.