By Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS (Reuters) - In the Bible, shepherds and wise men paid homage to the newborn baby Jesus. In Venezuela, it seems Hugo Chavez turned up in the manger, too.
A Nativity scene in Caracas showing the socialist president standing before the traditional crib-in-a-manger has stirred up a pre-Christmas controversy in the politically polarized country.
"It has nothing to do with the real Nativity, with religion. I don't like it," said passerby Arnaldo Amundaray, tutting as he took a close look at the model.
For Chavez supporters and the Nativity's creators, it is a legitimate and innocent tribute to their man.
"The intention is to show off all the revolution's achievements because the media silence the good things President Chavez has done," said Maria Alejandra Mijares, a Women's Ministry employee who helped make the Nativity.
The lovingly constructed model, which stands in a concourse of residential and business towers in central Caracas, has the traditional Christian scene at its heart. But it also politicizes the Nativity by paying tribute to some of Chavez's most popular policies during his 13-year rule.
To symbolize his infrastructure achievements there is a miniature cable car reaching up to a replica shantytown. The flagship social projects of the Chavez government, including his Barrio Adentro (Inside the Slum) clinics, also are painstakingly represented.
In the middle -- in front of and below Jesus's crib -- stands Chavez next to a model of his hero, South America's 18th century independence fighter Simon Bolivar.
Elsewhere, there is a photo of Chavez hugging a child.
"Like Christianity, the revolution is all about love," said another Women's Ministry worker, Yasmina Ereu. "Some people are fascinated. Others don't like it. But this is a democratic country. Everyone is welcome to their opinion."
Chavez, 57, has long had a syncretic philosophy of life, hailing both Marx and Jesus -- sometimes in the same speeches -- while also constantly appealing to the spirit of Bolivar.
He inspires visceral hatred in foes, who see him as a crazy, dictatorial upstart who has set their nation back years with his radical policies and authoritarian style.
Supporters, especially in Venezuela's poorest areas, often display a near-religious love and fanaticism. Both sides have the presidential election next October firmly in their sights.
Just around the corner from the Nativity, at a shop in the old Hilton Hotel that was nationalized by Chavez a few years ago, there is a brisk pre-Christmas sale in dolls, T-shirts, mugs and other paraphernalia adorned with his image.
"Eighty percent of Venezuelans are with him. This process is not going to stop," said seller Carlos Bonilla, parting with a Chavez coffee mug for 40 bolivars ($9.30).
Asked if sales will still be strong after Chavez's re-election bid next year, he and a couple of friends laugh confidently and press a button on a Chinese-made doll to let a plastic 'Comandante' give the answer for himself:
"There's no doubt who are the majority in Venezuela!"
(Editing by Daniel Wallis and Bill Trott)