CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Although the face of Hugo Chavez is already plastered on walls throughout much of the Venezuelan capital, the late leader's supporters are now vowing to put up images of the "eternal commander" on every street corner.
Caracas Mayor Jorge Rodriguez gave the order at a rally Thursday to protest the decision by the new opposition-controlled congress to banish from the neoclassical legislature building all images of Chavez and his mentor, independence hero Simon Bolivar.
Chavistas have been enraged by a video playing non-stop on state media showing the congress' new leader, Henry Ramos, cracking jokes while ordering workers to haul away a giant billboard of Chavez.
"I don't want to see Chavez or Maduro," Ramos says in the video, shot from a cellphone on his first day on the job. "Take it all to Miraflores, or the trash," he says, referring to the presidential palace.
At the rally Thursday outside the National Assembly in Plaza Bolivar, hundreds of government supporters dressed in red swore loyalty to Chavez and Bolivar. One protester dressed up as Uncle Sam pulling the strings of a cut-out Ramos.
"I have to defend their honor for my children, my grandchildren and great grandchildren," said one protester, 77-year-old Eva Prada, who held images of both Chavez and Bolivar.
President Nicolas Maduro visited Chavez's mausoleum accompanied by his newly appointed Cabinet to lend his support to the campaign. In a fiery speech before dozens of military officers, he called the removal of Bolivar's portrait from congress the most-serious affront to the memory of "the Liberator" in the nearly 200 years since his death. He ordered that every military family be given pictures of Bolivar and Chavez to hang in their homes.
"I don't know how each of us should react, in our hearts and minds, when the entire fatherland has been undeniably desecrated," Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino told troops at the mausoleum, which is in a historic fort atop a Caracas slum.
Chavez, who died in 2013 suffering from cancer, is revered by millions of poor Venezuelans who benefited from social programs like free housing and medical attention. A stencil of his eyes, on giant red billboards and spray-painted on buildings, is the most ubiquitous image in the country.
Opponents say the socialists' outrage is being feigned to distract from the economic crisis that led to the government's thrashing in legislative elections last month, when opposition candidates won a two-thirds majority in congress, taking control of the body for the first time in 17 years.
Foes of the socialists note that while Chavez's eyes are everywhere — providing a protective gaze or Big Brother-like dose of despotism, depending on the viewer's political views — his chosen successor, Maduro, is rarely lionized in the same way, which they say is a reflection of growing discontent among Venezuelans.
In Bolivar, however, Ramos picked on a more universally beloved figure.
Among the images removed from congress is a giant reconstruction of Bolivar's face based on an exhumation of his remains ordered by Chavez. The image has long stirred controversy because it was given a darker complexion that contrasts with 19th century paintings in which Bolivar is shown with more European features.
Ramos in the video says the only depiction he wants to see of Bolivar in the legislature is the "classic" one.
"That's no Simon Bolivar, it's an invention of this man, a crazy thing," Ramos says, referring to Chavez.
Since the video went viral, Ramos has defended his decision to clean house, saying that congress should be free of overt political symbols and that the only acceptable emblems are the nation's flag and coat of arms — both of which Chavez changed to reflect the core values of what he dubbed his Bolivarian revolution.