Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez died a year ago, but the ‘eternal commander’ still won’t be silenced

— A year after his death, outside the hilltop mausoleum that is the final resting place for late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, the “eternal commander” was still putting on a show.

From giant speakers set up at the mausoleum entrance, visitors could hear Chávez riffing on love and crooning romantic ballads, karaoke-style, his voice carrying up the steep hillside into the modest cement-block homes above.

“I remember my first girlfriend, when I was 14 or 15 years old,” he said. “If I got a little peck on the cheek, it was heaven!”

The firefighters standing guard nearby said they did not know when the recordings were made. “He did this kind of thing a lot,” one said. “He liked to sing.”

A year after succumbing to cancer at age 58, and with Venezuela left angrily divided and economically crippled after his 14-year-rule, Chávez is dead — but certainly not departed.


He is, arguably, the world’s hardest-working deceased leader.

His speeches and archived weekly “Hello President” programs are regularly rebroadcast on Venezuela’s airwaves. His visage is plastered all over government buildings, hats and T-shirts. Even the Orinoco Oil Belt, the petroleum-rich country’s hydrocarbon mother lode, has been renamed the Hugo Chávez Frias Orinoco Oil Belt.

On Wednesday, his chosen successor, Nicolás Maduro, presided over flowing tributes and a military parade in Chávez’s honor as foreign allies and loyal “chavistas” filed through the mausoleum to pay respects.

But for Maduro, the man who calls himself a “son of Chávez,” the day’s events were double-edged. They gave him a chance to remind the Chávez faithful that he was the inheritor of Venezuela’s “socialist” revolution, yet they also reminded Venezuelans that Maduro was not Chávez.

“It just doesn’t feel the same,” said Maria Cedeño, 68, who lives in one of the humble dwellings near the mausoleum. “Chávez was one thing, but Maduro is another,” she said, lowering her voice to a whisper.

With Chávez, her 23rd of January neighborhood got a new health clinic, better public lighting and new homes. But now there are crushing lines at supermarkets for basic goods, just one result of the currency controls, imposed by Chávez and continued by Maduro, that are driving inflation.

“You wait in line outside the supermarket, and by the time you get to the door, all the things you need are gone,” Cedeño said, having failed to find milk for her grandchildren, again, the day before.

Maduro has blamed the country’s problems on a coven of nefarious enemies, including scheming businessmen who wage “economic war” against his government and “destabilization” plots exported from Washington.

In a speech Wednesday at a military parade, as tanks rumbled along a central Caracas boulevard and Russian-made fighter jets streaked the sky, Maduro warned that he was weighing a “resounding” response against a “lackey government that is openly conspiring against the Venezuelan homeland.”

It was the kind of grand, dramatic gesture Chávez also favored.

A few hours later, speaking on national television at Chávez’s tomb, Maduro announced he was breaking off diplomatic and economic ties to Panama, accusing the country’s outgoing president, Ricardo Martinelli, of meddling in Venezuelan affairs.

Maduro also took a few swings at the Organization of American States — which has offered to mediate the country’s political tensions — and said he would not allow it to set foot on Venezuelan soil.

As the afternoon wore on, anti-government protests broke out in some Caracas neighborhoods, but appeared to be smaller than in previous weeks.

Mostly it was a day for Chávez supporters to mourn and display their loyalty. At the mausoleum, Desire Gonzalez, a homemaker, arrived at 6 a.m. for a place in line.

She visits his tomb every Sunday, she said, as if attending church. “Everything is peaceful here,” she said, gesturing to the military garrison that houses his tomb and the surrounding neighborhood. There was no sign of the strife that has roiled wealthier sections of the capital and left at least 18 dead and 250 injured over the past three weeks.

Maduro is “a good president,” Gonzalez said. But she acknowledged it was hard for him to live up the legacy of a man who has been virtually elevated to sainthood since death, his portraits now sold on Venezuelan streets alongside iconography of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.

“I think the problem,” she said, “is that Chávez never taught us how to live without him.”

Nick Miroff is a Latin America correspondent for The Post, roaming from the U.S.-Mexico borderlands to South America’s southern cone. He has been a staff writer since 2006.
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