Venezuela's political divisions spill into streets
Under a three-story-tall banner blaring "You are all Chavez," Jose Rafael Hernandez crouched low with a can of spray paint, outlining on a wall a black heart and the words "And long live Chavez..."
He and his three-man crew had already sprayed some 20 murals over the past week all over the "23 de enero" slum where support for the late President Hugo Chavez, their "Comandante," remains rock solid even after his death Tuesday. Dozens of other graffiti crews have also been at work, showing their allegiance in slogans and murals on countless doorways and walls.
"This is how we keep Chavez alive," said Jorge Luis Gonzales, a state bank accountant overseeing Hernandez's graffiti crew. "This is going to continue because the elections are coming, and the Comandante needs a big surprise. The opposition has their own graffitists, and we have ours."
Nearly a week after Chavez's death, Venezuelans have shown no signs they're ready to lower the rhetorical temperature. In fact, the national obsession with politics has only intensified as Venezuelans gear up for April 14 elections pitting Chavez successor Nicolas Maduro against opposition candidate Gov. Henrique Capriles.
All over this gritty capital built amid rolling hills, evidence of more than a decade of political warfare over Chavez and his socialist legacy is everywhere, from murals and billboards to even the T-shirts and caps worn by people in the city's chaotic streets.
In the eastern half of Caracas, which has long been known as an opposition stronghold, neighborhoods exploded in fireworks and car-honking Sunday night when Capriles launched his candidacy by accusing Maduro of using Chavez's death for political gain.
On the back of a barbecue shack in the neighborhood of Marquez, a mural with orange-and-yellow flames pleaded "Something Different!" while Capriles' youthful face looked out of nearby graffiti. Chavez images were conspicuously absent.
"I'm thinking that we'll have continuity for three years, more or less, and then real democracy will come," predicted Jose Garnica, a business owner reading the newspaper on a park bench.
He said the government had seized an apartment building he owned in the city center to house poor families and had only offered to pay him a pittance for it. He is still fighting to receive full compensation.
"This population is split 50-50," Garnica said, "and the government has fooled much of the poor here. What we need now is a change of government, not a socialist government but a democratic one."
For Jose Escobar, the plan for the future should be exactly more Chavez. Dressed in the late president's trademark red, he was drinking beers with fellow true believers in a plaza covered with graffiti images of the late president, despite a ban on public alcohol consumption during seven days of mourning.
"We will live and we will fight!" Escobar pledged, echoing a phrase used often by Chavez during his battle with cancer. "All the social programs must continue."
To be sure, the government has worked hard to keep the political fever high, as it rallies behind Maduro's candidacy.
Graffiti artist Reynaldo Rodriguez, who was helping Gonzales, said they had received paint and other materials directly from an army colonel to paint pro-Chavez slogans all over the slum, a violation of a constitutional ban on the military from engaging in politics. Banners pledging loyalty to Chavez hang from dozens of public housing towers and government buildings, while the displaying of Chavez's embalmed body in the army's military academy has turned into a running celebration filled with folk bands and thousands of weeping adherents.
"The government has been very clear and up-front that the media strategy is extremely important," said David Smilde, a senior fellow and Venezuela expert with the think tank the Washington Office on Latin America. "The exposure on Chavez has been very dramatic, trying to keep that sense of him being omnipresent."
Yet not everybody was pledging eternal battle.
Venezuela's bright yellow, red and blue flag has been flying at half-mast all over the capital, from improvised flagpoles set up on bare-brick huts in pro-Chavez slums, as well as on the manicured lawns of middle-class apartment towers in opposition-dominated neighborhoods.
Some Venezuelans said they were exhausted from all the attacks and counter-attacks, while others who had spent years criticizing Chavez said they mourned the man.
In a small, dimly lit salon in the working-class neighborhood of San Juan, Chavez backers Elle Coba and Darly Gomez laughed with unemployed teacher Joanna Machado even though she minced no words about her distaste for Chavez.
Coba lauded the food programs, schools and free public housing Chavez had launched across the country. She was wearing an armband and several hair scrunchies emblazoned with the flag's colors in honor of her Comandante.
Gomez joined in the praise, though she opted for orange-and-black spandex.
"All governments have their mistakes, but Chavez has tried to make our lives better," she said. "He's contributed and done things our nation has never done before."
Then, Machado had her say about the government.
"I am not a supporter of their policies, which they've used many times to keep themselves in power," Machado said. "They haven't done anything about jobs, which is what everyone needs. We have so many problems that need to be solved."
Coba hugged both women.
"I wish there were no fights, and everyone respected the ideology of everyone else," she said. "Poor, rich, we are all together in this."