REFILE-'Chavez is life!' - adulation in overdrive on Venezuelan media

* Love songs, prayers for Chavez all over state media

* President fights to recover from cancer surgery

CARACAS, Dec 18 (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 Dec. 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.

VENEZUELA'S 'PERON'?

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.

Most Popular in Business