Latin America & Caribbean

A tense Venezuela remembers Hugo Chavez

An anti-government protester holds up a poster against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro during a rally in Caracas on 2 March, 2014 Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The opposition has organised mass rallies demanding the resignation of President Nicolas Maduro

The first anniversary of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's death does not come at an opportune moment for his protege and successor in office, Nicolas Maduro.

Since early February, there have been daily protests against insecurity, record inflation and shortages of some basic foods, medicines and toiletries.

The largest protests to rock Venezuela in a decade, they have become the toughest test yet for Mr Maduro since he was elected in April following Mr Chavez's death fromcancer.

Nightly, the opposition stronghold of Altamira in Caracas resounds to the detonations from tear gas canisters and the firing of rubber bullets as the security forces try to stop young protesters from throwing stones and putting up barricades.

Distant noise

Yet in the pro-government bastion of 23 de enero, in the west of the capital, those noises feel very distant.

Sitting in her house a few meters away from the Cuartel de la Montana military headquarters where Mr Chavez's remains lie, Amanda Pedroza plays down the current unrest.

Image caption Amanda Pedroza lives just steps away from the military headquarters where Hugo Chavez's body lies

"Students always take to the streets," she says. "We don't hear much about it here. This area is 99% chavista," she says referring to those who follow Chavismo, Mr Chavez's distinct brand of socialism.

Like most chavistas, Ms Pedroza points to the significant reductions in inequality, poverty and malnutrition during his 14 years in power to explain her loyalty to the late leader's ideology.

She recalls how she had to go out to work washing laundry at the military headquarters when she was only five years old. Aged 74, she says she has Mr Chavez to thank for all she owns.

"Now we have everything, we have no reason to complain," she says. "You can find food, our houses are painted, the streets are calm. We even have health centres."

She concedes that those protesting probably have "their reasons" but insists that "we have none".

Different worlds

On the other side of the city, in the opposition stronghold of Altamira, the story is radically different.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Altamira has seen daily clashes between the security forces and protesters

Protesters blame Mr Chavez and Mr Maduro for Venezuela's rampant insecurity and the country's economic crisis.

Official figures suggest yearly inflation in December 2013 stood at 56.2%, and many Venezuelans say they have had enough.

The protesters are mainly from the middle class, but not exclusively.

Daniela Lugo, 22, is from Catia, a working class neighbourhood loyal to Mr Chavez.

"I know that good things have taken place under Chavismo but I am fighting against the bad ones," she explains.

The rift between opponents and supporters of the government deepened over the past weeks as clashes between the protesters and security forces turned violent and at least 18 people were killed.

The clashes have further highlighted long-standing tensions between the rival camps and their two contrasting visions of reality in Venezuela.

Opposition supporters say they are living under a dictatorship, while government supporters say their lives have never been better.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Government supporters say life has improved for them under the governments of Mr Chavez and Mr Maduro
Image copyright AP
Image caption Opposition supporters say the government is trying to silence them

Moderate voices, meanwhile, seem to be losing ground amidst the unrest.

Caracas-based sociologist Maryclen Stelling says the country is experiencing a confrontation between two opposing visions for the country.

But she says this is not new to Venezuelans: "There were two different countries before Mr Chavez but he highlighted the differences."

According to Ms Stelling, Mr Chavez was confrontational and even after his death, Venezuelan politics remain confrontational.

Coup allegations

Indeed, Mr Chavez's time in power was not without crises. He was briefly ousted in a coup in 2002, and a nationwide oil strike almost paralysed the economy in 2002-3.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Mr Chavez returned to power after a short lived coup in 2002

Mr Maduro has been quick to compare the current protests with the short-lived 2002 coup and has accused the opposition of trying to destabilise the country with the backing of the United States.

Political analyst Luis Vicente Leon says that while Mr Maduro constantly refers to his predecessor, he is still working hard to fill his shoes.

"Marking the first anniversary in the middle of turmoil is not what Mr Maduro would have liked to convey a message of strength and revolutionary connection," he explains.

According to pollster Oscar Schemel, the comparison with Mr Chavez is inevitable: "Mr Maduro is a creature of Mr Chavez. The popular support he has is the result of his condition of heir of Mr Chavez, of the executor of the teachings of Mr Chavez."

So far, his close links with his predecessor have guaranteed Mr Maduro the backing of enough Venezuelans to get him into office and keep him there.

Despite being elected by only a razor-thin margin in April's presidential poll, Mr Maduro and his party managed to gain support in December's local election to win by a margin of 10 percentage points.

Symbolic location

On Wednesday, Mr Maduro will receive foreign dignitaries at a ceremony marking Mr Chavez's death.

The event will be held at the Cuartel de la Montana barracks, which are closely linked to Mr Chavez's political career. It is where Mr Chavez led an attempted coup in 1992, which not only triggered his incarceration but also his political fame.

Images of the late leader can be seen on buildings and murals in the surrounding neighbourhood, and pro-government colectivos, or armed militias, partially control the area.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Murals of Hugo Chavez adorn de 23 de enero neighbourhood

The sound of protests is unlikely to filter into this pro-government stronghold fiercely loyal to Mr Chavez's memory.

But equally, the late leader's ideology seems to be struggling to transcend its core constituency, with opposition activists vowing to stay in the streets until the current government resigns.