IN ONE corner of the otherwise-peaceful central square of Caracas, where children feed the pigeons and office workers spend their lunchbreak, stands a papier-maché Satan.
This centrepiece of a socialist street art exhibition carries a speech bubble proclaiming: “Capriles, I’m waiting for you in hell.”
The ongoing elections are turning into some of the dirtiest Venezuela has ever witnessed. “You are a poisoned dart of hatred and provocation,” screamed Nicholas Maduro of his opponent at a recent political rally.
The opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, at whom this invective is directed, said this week: “I know you’re watching me Nicholas. I know you can’t resist it. You’re a liar.”
Caracas doesn’t look like it is in mourning. After the week of emotional outpouring following late president Hugo Chavez’s death and state funeral, the city has returned to business as usual. Locals, whether Chavistas or opposition supporters, are looking to the future while the politicians are dragging up the past.
In the middle of a tour of the country, Mr Capriles is talking little about his own policies, preferring instead to taunt the socialist candidate’s apeing of Hugo Chavez.
“You’re a bad clone who repeats things from a script,” he gloated to his supporters last Sunday. The mud-slinging isn’t expected to stop.
The opposition candidate, who lost to Mr Chavez in last year’s presidential election, has a point. Mr Maduro is being forced to campaign on the legacy of Mr Chavez.
“A vote for me is a vote for Chavez,” he proclaims at every political rally. His tactic of talking incessantly about the late “commander” is well justified, given that his support base are loyal not to him but to the wishes of their dead hero.
So extreme is Mr Maduro’s copycat campaign tactic that he does not appear on his own campaign propaganda – Hugo Chavez remains the socialist party poster-boy.
Hanging throughout central Caracas, the controversial leader’s face looks out from the campaign posters. Mr Maduro’s name is scrawled childishly across the top; an inconvenient truth played down by the main picture: the “commander” saluting his beloved people.
A website, www.madurodice.com, which has gone viral throughout Venezuela, counts the number of times Mr Maduro has said the word “Chavez” since the leader’s death on 5 March. Averaging more than 200 mentions per day, Mr Maduro’s tally now stands at well over 4,000. Reacting to this internet phenomenon, he declared recently: “I felt guilty, 4,000 is very little!”
Eric Fischer, one of the website’s creators, said: “It makes him [Mr Maduro] very relatable. People looked up to Chavez and it shows Maduro is doing the same.”
Mr Maduro rarely appears on television without a picture of Mr Chavez nearby. He has adopted the late commander’s wardrobe, the speaking style in which he rambles for hours – and a textbook adherence to Mr Chavez’s political moves.
“I call on President Obama and the CIA to stop any plans they have to assassinate my opponent and create chaos,” Mr Maduro declared last week. He had intimated that such “imperialist plotting” was afoot briefly in a speech four days before, and after seeing a positive reaction to the declaration, came back to elaborate.
Despite a calm US reaction – one spokesman sensibly describing it as “bizarre and unhelpful” – the Venezuelan public reacted as Mr Maduro intended.
“It’s what we want to see,” said José Reguló Villa, a “Chavista” speaking from central Caracas. “It shows us that Maduro and Chavez are the same.”
Mr Maduro is set to breeze into power on 14 April, with opinion polls in Caracas allotting him a 14 percentage-point lead over Mr Capriles.
“The man is prepared to lead”, said Marela Contreras, also from Caracas. “He’s one of us, he’s the man to continue Chavez’s work.”
The unspoken question now facing Venezuela is whether, once installed as president, Mr Maduro will attempt to take control under his own leadership or if, due either to popular demand or his own inherent weakness, he will continue to pretend to be Hugo Chavez.