CARACAS: Two huge black eyes stare out from the top of the tower block housing the National Assembly in Caracas, surveying the busy streets and the misty green mountains beyond.
Just the eyes — but every Venezuelan knows whose.
Socialist president Hugo Chavez died of cancer two years ago, but for his admirers he is still here watching over them — particularly this weekend, when Venezuelan voters choose which lawmakers will sit in the legislative assembly.
Chavez raised the hackles of US and European leaders, and his rivals dismissed him as a populist. But many poor Venezuelans loved him. Now, as they prepare to vote on Sunday, many would like to get Chavez back.
Since they can’t, some will vote instead for the opposition, which polls show could win control of the assembly for the first time since he came to power in 1999, in a snub to Chavez’s ally and successor Nicolas Maduro.
“I want to get rid of this president. He is corrupt,” said Nairobi Apollinar, 33, who sells underwear at a teeming market in Petare, a vast working-class suburb of Caracas.
“Prices are too high. It’s bad for sales. With Chavez things were normal.”
A former Chavez stronghold, Petare has been governed by a mayor from the anti-Maduro opposition since 2013.
Here shoppers and stall-owners complain of inflation — estimated by independent economists at around 200 percent.
To avoid lining up for hours at the understocked supermarkets, many come here to buy basic goods purchased in shops and resold illegally at higher prices.
“If Chavez were alive he wouldn’t put up with the queues,” said Fabiola Gonzalez, a 41-year-old mother of six.
“A few years ago there was a shortage of chicken,” she said. “He went looking and found chicken in Argentina. And the chicken appeared.”
Smiling with fist raised or frowning in his military beret, Chavez stares out from murals and election campaign posters for the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela.
His “Bolivarian revolution,” named after 19th century independence hero Simon Bolivar, invested the country’s vast oil wealth in projects to build homes, roads and schools.
But since the mustachioed former bus driver Maduro took over in 2013, the revolution has faltered as oil prices have plunged.
Venezuela’s economy is shrinking and prices have soared.
Diormalyz Echeto, 24, who is seven months pregnant with her second child, traveled 12 hours by bus from her home city of Maracaibo hoping to stock up on diapers and other goods from a stall reselling the items at a markup.
“We come here to see if we can find what we need,” she said. “Nappies, soap, shampoo. Otherwise you have to queue too long.”
“We didn’t buy anything. The prices are the same as back home,” she said, adding, “I am voting for the opposition because there is too much scarcity.”
But her husband, Jose Fuenmayor, 24, says he is loyal to “Chavismo” and is sticking with Maduro.
His salary as a government agricultural employee covers only half of his household costs. But he says the Chavistas’ social policies are important for poor families and must be defended.
“I have faith that the economic side of things will all be settled,” he said. “But there has to be an agreement between the government and the private sector because there are some products that the government does not provide.”
– ‘Economic war’ –
At a huge election rally in Caracas on Thursday, between the gray-yellow tower blocks lining Bolivar Avenue, Maduro reiterated his scorn for the right-wing “bourgeoisie.”
He accused private businesses of waging “economic war” against the people by hiding goods from them.
Singing and dancing, he conjured the memory of Chavez, whose face beamed from signs waved by the crowd in a sea of red shirts like those worn by the late leader.
“The decision on Sunday is a choice between two models: the patriotic model of pure rebellion, Bolivarian and Chavist, and the anti-patriotic model of the treacherous, petty Yankee, corrupt right wing,” Maduro bellowed. “Long live the memory of Hugo Chavez!”
In the audience, 25-year-old Johan Gutierrez said Chavez’s legacy had to be defended.
“If it were not for Commander Chavez, ordinary people would not have access to public education,” he said.
“I would not be here talking to you. I would be working as cheap slave labor.”
The lines at supermarkets stretched for hundreds of yards on Friday, with shoppers hoping to stock up ahead of election weekend, fearing violence would break out over the result.
“In case they shut everything down,” said Hilda Garcia, who waited four hours to buy chicken, flour and oil.
“I’m afraid there’s going to be shooting.”