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Venezuela celebrates Chavez's birthday

Hugo Chavez died nearly five months ago, but that hasn't stopped his hand-picked successor from holding week-long festivities honoring the late Venezuelan leader's birthday.
AFP | By HT Correspondent, Caracas
UPDATED ON JUL 29, 2013 02:23 PM IST

Hugo Chavez died nearly five months ago, but that hasn't stopped his hand-picked successor from holding week-long festivities honoring the late Venezuelan leader's birthday.

The fiery former military officer who dominated the country'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."

Chavez's legacy however has divided the country, with about half the population blaming him or 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.

Chavez's marble sarcophagus is protected by an honor guard, and every day at 4:25 pm a cannon is fired to mark the moment he died.

"I'm still crying for my presidente," said Norelis Alvarez, a 44-year-old nurse, as she left the Cuartel.

Maduro was at the Cuartel on Sunday, and surrounded by the most senior government and military officials he celebrated Chavez's birthday by vowing to continue the late leader's policies.

The self-declared "first Chavista president," a 50 year-old former bus driver, 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," he 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 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.

"Some say that I'm crazy, but I do it with love," said 48-year-old Elisabeth Torres, who proudly describes herself as the custodian of the improvised temple of "Saint Hugo Chavez."

"There is no one like my comandante," she said with a gleam in her green eyes.

Life in post-Chavez Venezuela

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 every day life.

Many loyalists, or Chavistas, acknowledge that things are tough and support Maduro -- but others grumble that Maduro isn't up to the task.

Yahaira Jimenez, 56, complains about the new president as she sits under an umbrella with cell phones chained to a table -- she rents them to her working-class neighbors for use by the minute. "With Maduro everything is worse," she said. "We have to stand in line for meat, and walk far to get toilet paper."

Jimenez dutifully voted for Chavez's chosen successor in the April 14 election, which Maduro officially won by a 1.5 percent margin, although opposition candidate Henrique Capriles claimed fraud and has yet to concede.

Critics say Chavez's 14 years in power were a disaster, and point to Venezuela's 25 percent inflation rate, the erratic availability of goods, and a hair-raising crime rate that resulted in 16,000 murders in 2012.

"The government is trying to keep alive someone who already died. People are not paying attention to this, they are more worried about making ends meet with sky-high prices and with so many bad guys out there," said Antonio Finocchio, a 49 year-old insurance agent from the Caracas neighborhood of Chacao, an opposition stronghold.

Capriles has been careful to avoid offending Chavez in public and has asked the government to let the late president "rest in peace." But he has let loose on 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.

"There is a Venezuela that is with Chavez and another without Chavez," analyst Carlos Romero told AFP.

"The people are distressed by their basic problems. Despite the government's efforts to maintain the myth, Chavez is history, he's dead."

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