CARACAS (Reuters) - Gathered in the yard of a small home in the Venezuelan countryside, a young man with dreadlocks asks a bearded musician clutching a guitar: “Who can Chavez rely on?”
“All of us! Let me tell you who we are,” the older man replies, breaking into song over gritty images of working-class life in the South American country led by socialist President Hugo Chavez.
“We are the poor. We are all with Chavez!” he sings, over footage of construction workers, farmers and youngsters in the ghetto lip-syncing to the lyrics.
The video is the latest in a wave of adoring coverage that is running around the clock on state television as Chavez, 58, fights to recover from cancer surgery.
Chavez has been the dominant figure in Venezuela since he won power 14 years ago, forging a passionate following based on his charisma, humble birth and massive social spending.
His new absence in Cuba - and the possibility that after his fourth operation in 18 months he could die or be unable to continue as president - has sent a shockwave through supporters.
Punctuated by occasional bulletins on the president’s condition, government media have pushed their always Chavez-heavy output to hagiographic levels - es pecially ahead of the December 16 regional elections in which his ruling Socialist Party hammered the opposition by winning 20 out of 23 states.
One video, set to uplifting music, is a montage of prayers for Chavez’s health from around the country, with military officers, government ministers and regular Venezuelans hugging.
“Chavez is life!,” says one soldier in another typical video entitled “Give joy to my heart”, accompanied by soft-focus shots of the smiling president hugging babies, kissing their mothers and playing baseball with children.
‘YOU TOO ARE CHAVEZ’
In another, filmed from an aircraft on a headland by the sea, hundreds of red-clad loyalists arrange themselves into giant letters forming the words “Long Live Chavez!” alongside a house-sized poster of “el Comandante” and a Venezuelan flag.
Chavez has fostered the quasi-personality cult, declaring during the election campaign earlier this year that he had become “the people” - and vice versa.
“You too are Chavez,” was his main slogan.
After the president regained consciousness following last Tuesday’s complex six-hour operation in Havana, an aide said his first words were: “How are my people?”
Chavez is being treated in Cuba, where information is tightly controlled and his close friend and political mentor Fidel Castro all but wrote the book on how to use propaganda and the state media to build a towering presence.
From the giant poster of Chavez surrounded by smiling children that greets visitors in the passport hall at Maiquetia airport, to the billboards bearing his likeness along the highway to Caracas, it is hard to escape the president’s image.
His face adorns newspapers, posters and clothing - one line of T-shirts shows only his eyes, above a tiny signature. Various candidates for Sunday’s elections simply played his words at their closing rallies.
Chavez has cast his “21st century socialism” as almost a second coming of his idol Simon Bolivar, setting out his self-styled revolution in the imagery of Bolivar’s 19th century battle to free the region from colonial power Spain.
On Monday, the two ideas overlapped, with the government commemorating the 182nd anniversary of Bolivar’s death - it is finishing a grand new mausoleum in downtown Caracas to house his jeweled coffin - while in nearby Plaza Bolivar, children gathered for another event to pray for Chavez’s health.
“There are two important things in life: our liberator Simon Bolivar and our president, Hugo Chavez. Get better soon my comandante,” one shy young girl with pig-tails told state TV.
The information ministry has published a report called “Loyalty to Chavez - The Fatherland is Safe”, fronted by a picture of Chavez and his newly named heir apparent, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, sitting under a painting of Bolivar, Chavez holding an ornate replica of Bolivar’s sword.
Some in the opposition’s more radical wing have been spreading their own counter-propaganda. One email doing the rounds in recent days agreed that no one wished Chavez ill health, but then listed the harsh treatment it said the president had meted out to rivals in the past.
“His situation doesn’t make me happy, but neither does it make me lose sleep,” the email said. “Everyone’s day comes, and the executioner cannot ask for clemency.”
Even if he dies, Chavez’s influence will be felt on Venezuelan politics for years - perhaps not unlike Argentine leader Juan Peron, whose 1950s populism remains the ideological foundation of the country’s dominant political party.
In the shorter term, Maduro will aim to associate himself as closely as possible with Chavez’s public image.
If Chavez had to step down, a new election would be held within 30 days. The vice president would hope that his boss’s blessing would be enough for him to beat likely opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, while also keeping a lid on the ambitions of Socialist Party rivals.
Demonstrating the power of Chavez’s endorsement was the victor in the biggest upset in Sunday’s gubernatorial elections: former army officer Arias Cardenas, who toppled opposition heavyweight Pablo Perez in oil-rich Zulia state.
Cardenas had received Chavez’s fulsome backing at a rally before October’s presidential vote, and in what must have been the envy of fellow candidates, his own campaign video showed Chavez in a red beret, his arm flung round Cardenas’ shoulders.
“I need you, Pancho,” said an emotional Chavez, using Cardenas’ nickname. “We’ll be together forever, brother, to continue fighting for the humble people of Venezuela!”
On Sunday, Cardenas claimed Venezuela’s most populous state. (Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Kieran Murray and Mohammad Zargham)