New neighbor, an embalmed Chavez, fuels barrio pride

In death as in life, Venezuela's late president Hugo Chavez is courting his political base after the government announced plans to embalm the firebrand leftist leader "like Lenin."

His embalmed remains are coming soon to permanent display in an old military barracks atop a hillside slum, a huge source of local pride.

Residents of the very humble "January 23" neighborhood -- where orange, yellow and blue cinderblock and tin-roof houses are precariously perched on picturesque steep slopes -- could not be more pleased to welcome a hero home.

"I am so proud... It is such an honor for our neighborhood" to host the mausoleum in the sprawling red and gold Spanish colonial-style building, said Iraima Diaz, 39.

"I live in that little green house, right over there," she said excitedly, pointing to a humble abode across from the former barracks serving as a makeshift military museum.

It was from there on February 4, 1992, that the former paratrooper Chavez led a failed coup attempt that put him on the local political map.

On "February 4 Square," which abuts the barracks barred to journalists at the time, neighbors are beside themselves with the unexpected honor of hosting Chavez's mausoleum.

Just beneath the building on the hillside is a giant red and white sign reading "4-F" that can be seen from afar. It refers again to the date Chavez rose up against then president Carlos Andre Perez.

For his followers, it is a symbol of the start of the government putting the poor first and taking on the old political party system. The government had been dominated mostly by the wealthy for decades during which the poor made precious little progress.

Even in 1992, the building already had become a Museum of Military History, "but Chavez picked it as his base for the coup attempt because it is fairly close to the presidential palace," said historian Agustin Blanco Munoz.

Once the "Comandante" was elected to lead Venezuela in 1998, the neighborhood became among the most storied Chavez political strongholds.

It enjoys all the symbols of Chavez's socialist state-led neighborhood development: a medical center, a state food shop and a museum.

The walls are decked out in huge frescoes with images of the late president, Argentine-born Cuban revolutionary hero Ernesto "Che" Guevara and local independence-era hero Simon Bolivar.

Sporting the Chavez supporters' trademark red beret, Diaz said that while she is honored by the late president's possible final resting place being in her neighborhood, she actually hopes that it "won't be for long."

Like many fervent Chavez faithful, she wants to see Chavez be laid to rest in the National Pantheon alongside his main national hero, Bolivar.

Carmen Rosa Diaz, a musical instrument maker of 51 sitting in the sunny plaza with her government-issued red hat and government-issued (red) toys for relatives, said she was "proud and delighted that something so important" would happen in her neighborhood.

The area takes its Chavismo seriously.

Shopkeeper Isabel Torres said that mausoleum or not, she won't be hawking the dizzying array of Chavez hats, T-shirts, stickers, postcards and other memorabilia available in most area shops.

"His memory is so much more important than all of those things," she stressed.

Chavez lost his battle against cancer on Tuesday at the age of 58, leaving behind a divided country after a tumultuous 14-year presidency.

The government plans to embalm and preserve Chavez "like Lenin" to rest in a glass casket "for eternity," a move decried by the opposition, which claimed that it went against the president's wish to be buried.

Thousands of Venezuelans, meanwhile, continued to file past the open casket of the firebrand leader at a military academy, in a prolonged farewell to the man whose socialist revolution heightened class tensions in the country of 29 million.