CARACAS — Although President Hugo Chavez died of cancer earlier this year, he is still at the center of the Venezuelan presidential election campaign. The former president's image is everywhere, his successor Nicolas Maduro refers to himself as Chavez's son and supporters are being urged to vote once more to protect his legacy.
An eternal flame marks the entrance of the National Pantheon, where the late President Hugo Chavez's body has been laid to rest. Every day, hundreds of his most loyal supporters, like Milagros Rodriguez, come to pay their last respects.
“Chavez is my heart and my life. I identify with him, and he will always be in all of us. We are Chavez and Chavez is everyone who has an awareness of a free Venezuela and real socialism,” said Rodriguez.
While President Chavez is gone, his image is still everywhere in Caracas - from wall paintings to old campaign posters to a small memorial in a poor neighborhood of the city.
And in the presidential election, Chavez's memory and popularity are key components of the campaign.
Former Vice President Nicolas Maduro regularly invokes the late president and once said Chavez’s spirit came to him as a tiny bird while he was on the campaign trail.
Campaign advertisements also show Chavez looking down on his chosen successor from heaven.
For many of the late president's supporters, this election is not about Maduro or his opponent Henrique Capriles or even about high inflation or rampant crime in the country.
As high school student Willmaira Flores says, it is about defending President Chavez's legacy.
“Chavez wasn't just a person. He was a movement and the students understood that. We know what we've been through, what our parents have been through, and now we are here with all the benefits we must defend,” said Flores.
Political science professor Gabriel Reyes, at Andres Bello Catholic University, in Caracas, says it was a strategic decision early on by the Maduro Campaign to make the election about the spirit of Chavez.
“It is a message that has been planned, and they are trying to take the motive why they should vote for him out of the earthly context," he said. "Because if the reason were rational or earthly it would be really difficult for them to win.”
And so far it seems to be working. President Maduro holds a significant lead over Capriles in the polls leading into Sunday's election.