* Maldonado is a friend of socialist president Chavez
* Feted by all sides on Venezuela political divide
* Venezuelans take to streets to hail Maldonado
By Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS, May 14 Venezuelan driver Pastor
Maldonado's remarkable first Formula One victory brought a rare
moment of national unity to a homeland bitterly divided months
before a presidential vote.
The 27-year-old driver has been closely associated with
President Hugo Chavez's socialist government due to numerous
friendly appearances alongside the Venezuelan leader and the
sponsorship of state oil company PDVSA.
Yet his thrilling Spanish Grand Prix win on Sunday - the
first for a Venezuelan - elevated him beyond a symbol of
Chavez's socialism into a cherished national hero.
"Our shepherd," was the headline in the normally anti-Chavez
El Universal newspaper, playing on the Spanish-language meaning
of his first name "Pastor".
"He has united the nation with his triumph in Spain."
Scores of Venezuelans tooted horns and unfurled banners
around Caracas saying "Maldonado, pride of Venezuela!"
In repose after latest cancer treatment, Chavez tweeted his
jubilation. "I said so: Our Pastor Maldonado won, making
history. Bravo Pastor! Congratulations to you and all your
fighting team! We shall overcome!"
Not to be outdone, his opponent in the upcoming Oct. 7
presidential election, Henrique Capriles, also sent his
congratulations via Twitter.
"Fantastic Maldonado! Congratulations for Pastor, for Aragua
(his state) and for all our Venezuela with this triumph in
Formula One. Long live Venezuela!"
During Chavez's 13-year rule, the South American nation has
become deeply polarised, with supporters seeing him as a messiah
overcoming decades of injustice and foes casting the president
as a dangerous dictator.
The national jubilation over Maldonado's echoed last year's
feel-good over Venezuela's soccer team, which was the laughing
stock of the region for years before finally starting to perform
decently in recent tournaments.
As with their support for Maldonado, both Chavez and
Capriles tout their love of the soccer team for barely-disguised
State oil company PDVSA, which has controversially ousted a
local private company to take over sponsorship of the national
soccer team, has been backing Maldonado since his debut season
last year. It is unknown how much money PDVSA has put in.
"Venezuela has covered itself with glory," said PDVSA, whose
oil revenues have financed Chavez's self-styled "revolution"
since he took power in 1999.
Maldonado's beaming face and clenched fist dominated
newspaper headlines and television footage.
In the most dramatic day of his life, Maldonado not only
brought a first win for his success-starved Williams team in
nearly eight years, but then carried a young cousin to safety
after fire engulfed his team's garage.
That only added to his aura of heroism back home.
The usually modest and softly-spoken Maldonado was ecstatic.
"I think there is a new generation coming in Formula One
which will be talked about a lot," he said. "This has been my
first podium and my first victory. You can imagine how I feel."
(Editing by Marianna Parraga and Pritha Sarkar)