Hugo Chávez seen as divine by supporters

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CARACAS -- Holding a Bible in her arms at the start of Holy Week, seamstress Maria Munoz waited patiently to visit the tomb of the man she considers another savior of humanity.

She said she had already turned her humble one-bedroom house into a shrine devoted to the late President Hugo Chávez, complete with busts, photos and coffee mugs bearing his image. Now, said Munoz, 64, her brother-in-law was looking for a larger house to display six boxes' worth of Chávez relics that her family has collected throughout his political career.

"He saved us from so many politicians who came before him," Munoz said as tears welled in her eyes. "He saved us from everything."

Chávez's die-hard followers considered him a living legend on a par with independence-era hero Simon Bolivar well before his March 5 death from cancer. In the mere four weeks since, however, Chávez has ascended to divine status in this deeply Catholic country as the government and Chavistas build a religious mythology around him before April 14 elections to pick a new leader.

Chávez's hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro, has led the way, repeatedly calling the late president "the redeemer Christ of the Americas" and describing Chavistas, including himself, as "apostles." After Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio became Pope Francis earlier this month, Maduro said Chávez had advised Jesus Christ in heaven that it was time for a South American pope.

The late leader had encouraged such treatment as he built an elaborate cult of personality and mythologized his own rise to power, said Carolina Acosta-Alzuru, a University of Georgia media studies scholar who hails from Venezuela.

She said Chávez's successors are clearly hoping that pumping up that mythology can boost Maduro's presidential campaign, which has been based almost entirely on promises to continue Chávez's legacy.

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