In Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro — the president of a powerful government — should be at center stage. But as he runs in Sunday's snap presidential elections, it's his larger-than-life predecessor who is getting much of the attention.
The death of Hugo Chavez, who taunted the U.S. and empowered the poor, is triggering the special vote. And Maduro is using Chavez's voice and image to ensure that the late president's socialist system remains in power for many more years to come.
Maduro, a 50-year-old former bus driver and Chavez confidant, became interim president last month, after Chavez, who transformed this country in 14 years of rule, died following a long battle with cancer.
The sympathy vote has given Maduro a huge advantage over opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, and most polls show the interim president with a big lead.
But Maduro is taking no chances — and that means using the Chavez card.
A Little Birdie Told Me So
On state television, Maduro explained how the late president came to him from the grave in the form of a songbird.
"All of a sudden, a little bird circled three times around me, stopped on a wooden beam, and began to sing a pretty song," Madura said.
"Then I, too, began to whistle," he said, whistling like a bird as he talked. "The little bird looked at me in a strange way. He sang, circled me once and flew away. And I felt his spirit. I felt him giving us a blessing, saying now the battle begins, go to victory."
Some in Venezuela ridiculed the story as crass politicking.
Among many of Chavez's followers, though, the story had an impact.
Daniela Paz is a 33-year-old street vendor who says Chavez was like a father figure to Venezuelans.
"No, I didn't think it was funny. There are people who took this like a joke, but I didn't see anything funny," she says about the notion of Chavez coming to Maduro in the form of a bird.
What's perfectly clear, she says, is that Chavez wanted Maduro to lead the country.
"Since we love Chavez, we do what he tells us to do," Paz says. "Onward with El Comandante and Maduro!"
Vote For Continuing Chavez's Socialism
Maduro is imposing, wears a bushy mustache and is not a seasoned campaigner — in other words, on the stump, he's very different from Chavez, who forged a near-religious bond with followers.
But Maduro tries hard to be the populist. There are warnings of American destabilization plans, and a message extolling Venezuela's self-styled revolution.
"We have to guarantee this country continue its path to dignity, to sovereignty, a country that's anti-imperialist, that in its anti-imperialism reaffirms its permanent independence," Maduro said.
He also asks the crowds who they want in the Miraflores presidential palace: the son of Chavez — that's him — or the oligarchy.
"I'm the guarantor of peace, of stability, of the continuation of Hugo Chavez's work, of his missions," he said.
Mariela Duran, who is 36 and came to Caracas from miles away for a Maduro rally, says she is sold on Maduro.
To her, he means the continuation of Chavez — and to her, Chavez made Venezuela a better country.
Polls show people like Duran are likely to give Maduro a six-year term — and hand defeat to Capriles, who proposes ending what Chavez called 21st-century socialism.
"It wasn't just because he told us to vote for him. It's also because we want a country ... where all the resources are ours, belong to us, that they belong to our children," Duran says. "And we don't want the opposition to return."
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