'Saint Hugo Chavez': Leader worshipped at his tomb

An endless line of Venezuelans files past the tomb of late president Hugo Chavez inside an old barracks perched in a hillside Caracas slum. Many pray and sing hymns until night falls.

Outside, people leave colorful bouquets in a blue, wooden chapel with a tin roof that was recently built in honor of the fallen firebrand leader. Its name: "Saint Hugo Chavez."

While Venezuelans prepare to vote in an April 14 election, this corner of the January 23 neighborhood has become a makeshift place of worship for the dead president, who forged an emotional bond with his supporters through his charisma and controversial brand of socialism.

"I couldn't close the chapel at 1:30 am because there were still people praying," said Elisabeth Torres, in charge of caring for the tiny place of worship, which is covered with pictures of Chavez, candles and flowers.

Inside, a bust of Chavez sits under a crucifix, with the words: "You were, you are and you will be our giant for eternity. We will love you forever."

"I came here to thank him," said Belkys Rivera, a tearful Caracas lawyer. "Chavez didn't give me any material things because I don't need them. But he gave me hope. Today I feel this pain and this terrible absence."

A mystification of Chavez has been in full swing since he died on March 5, prompting the opposition to accuse the government of exploiting the death of the man who ran Venezuela for 14 years.

His handpicked successor, acting President Nicolas Maduro, invokes the memory of the "supreme commander" at every turn as he campaigns against opposition leader Henrique Capriles.

A state-run channel, Vive TV, is now broadcasting a cartoon showing Chavez arriving in heaven, where he is greeted by regional icons such as South American independence hero Simon Bolivar and legendary Marxist guerrillero Che Guevara.

Since the body of Chavez was laid to rest in January 23, more images of the "comandante" have appeared in the streets of the "barrio," which has been cleaned up and become safer amid a heavier military presence.

Venezuelans come from all corners of the country to see the late leader's tomb inside the Mountain Barracks, a military museum that Chavez had used to plot a coup that failed in 1992. But Chinese, Swiss, Colombian and Spanish tourists have also toured the site.

"We decide to see the tomb of the man who did so much for the people, especially the most forgotten," said Lesbia Torres, who was visiting from the northern Colombian city of Riohacha.

Thomas Schmidt, a Swiss man who resides in Venezuela, admitted that he is not a "Chavista."

"I don't say it too loudly because these people wouldn't understand. I came because this determination among people that Chavez will never die is almost a case study."

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