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Absent but omnipresent, Chavez a powerful symbol

Thursday - 1/24/2013, 10:23pm  ET

By IAN JAMES
Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) - While Venezuela's sick president recuperates from surgery behind closed doors in Cuba, at home he is more visible than ever.

Iconic images of his eyes look out from murals lining the streets of Caracas, his portrait appears on T-shirts sported by followers, and on television he can be heard booming "I am a nation!"

Though still alive, Chavez is being inducted into a pantheon of deified legends such as Evita Peron and Ernesto "Che" Guevara.

The cult of personality that Chavez long nurtured has been flourishing with even greater force in his absence as he confronts an increasingly difficult struggle against the mysterious cancer that afflicts him.

One woman at a pro-government demonstration on Wednesday held a portrait photo of Chavez next to an image of Jesus. New murals showing only the president's eyes have appeared on city walls along with a new slogan, "I am Chavez."

The eyes-only design sends a message that he is always watching and still with his adoring constituents. Many credit him with easing their poverty and expanding public services. To them, it does not matter that Venezuela suffers from 20 percent inflation, that the oil-producing nation is often short on cooking oil and sugar, that it has one of the world's highest murder rates, that the president will not divulge the details of his cancer.

"I am Chavez!" his supporters yell at the rallies in his honor. "We're all Chavez!" the crowds shout in unison.

Filling the void of Chavez's 6-week absence following a fourth surgery in Cuba, the government has been churning out a steady stream of emotional images, slogans and Chavez sound bites that appear poised to solidify his legacy as a messianic savior of the poor.

In newspapers, the government has been running one ad showing a photo of the president superimposed on a mosaic of smiling faces of Venezuelans: Chavez men, Chavez women and Chavez children of all ages.

Juan Pablo Lupi, a Latin American literature scholar, sees parallels with the way Evita Peron became an enduring political symbol in Argentina, and the way "Che" became a revolutionary icon after his death. In the case of Chavez, he said, "this has been very well-staged, all this process of myth-making and appealing to the feelings and religious sentiment of the people. This is something that is quasi-religious."

Lupi, a Venezuelan associate professor at the University of California Santa Barbara, said he expects Chavismo to go on without Chavez. "The myth is already there, and all this has been very, very well-crafted."

Connections between Chavez and Jesus are surfacing more often, and Chavez has emphasized his faith during his illness by praying to God on television for more time and repeatedly kissing a crucifix.

In one television spot, a beaming Chavez hugs children while a singer croons: "Chavez is pure and noble love." And for block after block in downtown Caracas, lampposts are festooned with new banners showing a smiling, healthy Chavez with the words "We love you!"

Daisy Castillo, who studies law at a free university established by Chavez, joined Wednesday's demonstration, and says she, like many other Chavistas, is praying for him.

"There has never before been a president like our Comandante Chavez," she said.

Fidel Castro long tried to avoid the trappings of a cult of personality in Cuba, sharply limiting public presentations of his image. But there is plenty of precedent elsewhere for displays of presidential imagery, with leaders such as Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and Kim Jong Il in North Korea _ not to mention Mao Zedong and Josef Stalin.

In Venezuela, the relentless omnipresence of a missing leader is a way to reinforce his party, said Juan Carlos Bertorelli, creative director at a marketing company in Caracas that focuses on branding.

"Now that he's not here physically or in voice at this time, the people who are maintaining the structure of his party," he said, "are trying to maintain a presence that legitimizes them."

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Associated Press photographer Fernando Llano contributed to this report.

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Ian James on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ianjamesap


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