There are six days until the April 14 presidential election in Venezuela, and everything is practically the same as it was six months ago - except for one thing. In October 2012, Hugo Chavez was a fearless leader, an extremely powerful man whose charisma (and monetary hand-outs) caused adulation among many. Today, Chavez is no longer that man. He is a God.
Driving in from the airport, it's hard to tell who exactly is running for president on April 14. There are a few posters of the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, smiling and not showing the signs of fatigue that surely must be wearing him thin.
But Chavez is omni-present, often dwarfing his hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro. Some of Maduro's campaign posters don't even have his face on them - they have pictures of Chavez.
Throughout the city are pictures and paintings of eyes -- the eyes of Chavez. On the sides of buildings, on T-shirts, on posters -- Chavez is always watching you.
Maduro has few of his own slogans, but his best one involves a solemn vow voters are making to Chavez, who is presumably watching them from above: "Chavez, te juro, voto por Maduro" [Chavez, I swear, I am voting for Maduro]. Notice who comes first and who comes last in that phrase.
Maduro's speeches, rife with memories and laudations of the late Chavez, made so many saintly references about him (Maduro claimed that Chavez intervened while in heaven to make the new Pope a Latino) that the Archbishop of Caracas had to step in last week and clarify that there is only one God (inferring that Chavez is a mere mortal).
Downtown streets are filled with booths, some of which blast music and have Maduro supporters sitting inside drinking beers. Others, however, have mini-Chavez' giving sermons about the morality of Maduro and the immorality of Capriles.
You can't even own a cell phone in this country without getting (unsolicited) text messages from an unknown sender invoking Chavez' name. How would you like to wake up to this on your phone: " CHAVEZ a un mes de tu partida JURAMOS cumplir tu voluntad firme, plena como la luna llena, absoluta y total, eligiendo a MADURO PRESIDENTE y que siga tu legado" [CHAVEZ one month from your departure WE SWEAR we will comply with your will, as clear as the full moon, absolutely and completely, electing MADURO AS PRESIDENT and continuing your legacy.]
To say that the odds are stacked against Capriles would be an understatement. The trampas (traps) that will take place on April 14 are the same as they were October 7. People living in government housing will be offered free rides, food and payment (600 Bolivares) to go vote. Buses in areas that are heavily populated by opposition-leaning voters will likely be magically broken down so that voters can't make it to the polls.
The only difference now is, if you even question these processes, you are contradicting Saint Hugo ... and he is watching.