CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela's presidential campaign on Wednesday veered between warnings of military meddling in the April 14 vote and opposition mirth at the acting president's suggestion that the spirit of Hugo Chavez visited him as "a little bird" while he prayed.
Opposition lawmaker Alfonso Marquina presented a complaint to Venezuela's elections council, demanding it sanction officers who have publicly backed Nicolas Maduro, who has been acting president since President Hugo Chavez's death on March 5.
Marquina has alleged that Defense Minister Diego Molero and National Guard Gen. Antonio Benavides plan to use military resources to intimidate voters, especially those dependent on government services, to cast ballots for Maduro.
Maduro's campaign denies the allegations and there was no immediate comment from the council.
But the controversy was almost overshadowed in the press and chatter in the street by Maduro's latest move to draw an almost religious connection to Chavez, whom he served as foreign minister and vice president.
Maduro declared on Tuesday that a "little bird" appeared as he was praying alone in a little wooden chapel shortly after Chavez's death.
"It sang, and I responded with a song and the bird took flight, circled around once and then flew away, and I felt the spirit and blessings of Commander Hugo Chavez for this battle," said Maduro, who interspersed his remarks with sounds to simulate the flapping of the bird's wings and its whistle.
The message, delivered as he visited Chavez's hometown of Sabaneta in southern Venezuela, was intended for a national audience of Chavistas that reveres the late leader. It also fell in line with an electoral strategy in which Maduro repeatedly emphasizes his close ties to Chavez, who tapped him as his chosen successor.
But it prompted ridicule among many of his opponents.
Many newspapers led their campaign stories Wednesday with Maduro's bird remarks. The satirical website "El Chiguire Bipolar" said the statement was so strange that its own jokes could not compete: "If you laugh, it's not because of us."
Images of birds with Chavez's head circulated among government critics on social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, prompting Maduro to defend himself.
"Now the bourgeoisie and the right are talking about Maduro's little bird. What do they think? That we're ridiculous? Show some respect, gentlemen," he said at a Tuesday rally in the western state of Zulia.
Maduro also defended what he called revolutionary unity with the armed forces at a rally Wednesday in the western state of Tachira, even as the opposition was filing its complaint.
"Civic-military unity is one of the greatest works that our supreme commander, Hugo Chavez, built," Maduro said, according to the government news agency.
Venezuela's Constitution bans military officers from publicly promoting politicians or political parties. But in his 14 years in power, Chavez co-opted the armed forces' leadership to ensure loyalty to his socialist government, especially after he was briefly ousted in a coup in 2002.
Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles and his supporters have lambasted top-ranking military officers, including Molero and Benavides, for publicly backing Maduro in the April 14 election.
But just one day after Chavez died, Molero said the military would follow instructions left by Chavez. He did not elaborate.
"The national armed forces will not fail Chavez," Molero said, according to state television. "Once elections are organized, we will honor his wishes and we will give the fascists a tough blow."
On March 21, the defense minister tweeted: "From this day on, we join the battle of ideas the Supreme Commander of the Revolution pushed forward."
On Tuesday, Maduro accused the opposition of attempting to create splits within the military. He did not provide details.
"They want to divide the armed forces," he told supporters. "Everyone, be alert."
During an interview with the Caracas-based television network Telesur on Wednesday, Molero expressed confidence in the military's unity, saying "it's more solid than ever."
"They will never be able to divide this unity," he added.
Capriles, 40, is the governor of Miranda state. After losing a hard-fought October election to Chavez in October, he agreed to lead the opposition again in this month's election. His campaign has focused on separating Maduro from the enigmatic Chavez. Maduro has sought to ride Chavez's coattails into office.
Christopher Toothaker on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ctoothaker