Venezuela's future uncertain one month after Chavez's death

One month after the death of Venezuela's larger-than-life president Hugo Chavez, the oil-rich nation faces an uncertain political and economic future, as it finds itself in the throes of a nasty election campaign to replace him.

Chavez's image is ever present on Caracas' lampposts and buildings, while his chosen successor -- acting President Nicolas Maduro -- has eulogized his mentor every day since Chavez died on March 5.

After 14 years in power, the passing of the firebrand leader who dominated political life has left a void in Venezuela, a country divided between throngs of Chavistas who adored his oil-funded socialism and critics of his personality-driven rule.

"The word of the day is uncertainty because there is a huge void. Chavez concentrated everything and he left this enormous hole," historian Margarita Lopez Maya told AFP.

"For his supporters, replacing him is impossible. The most they can do is to try to imitate him, but how are they going to govern this country if they win?" said Lopez Maya, who compiled a well-known book here on socialism.

Maduro, who will face opposition leader Henrique Capriles in the April 14 election, has strived to keep Chavez's spirit alive, emulating his bombastic speeches while referring to him as the "supreme commander" and "redeemer of the poor."

"Sometimes I feel like I am imagining all of this, as if the absence of the comandante was just a nightmare and that I will wake up," Maduro said, who has a double-digit lead in opinion polls, told AFP.

The ghost of Chavez looms large over the campaign, while Maduro and Capriles have resorted to mud-slinging that has overshadowed the nation's more immediate problems: a high murder rate, soaring inflation and shortages of basic goods.

Maduro drew the ridicule of the opposition when he said in a televised appearance this week that Chavez came to him while he was praying recently, in the form of a "little bird."

"Maduro is not in an election campaign. He seems more like he's in a seance, acting as a clairvoyant for Chavez to win votes and unite Chavismo," Manuel Felipe Sierra, a veteran journalist and author of books on Venezuelan politics, told AFP.

"Keeping Chavista emotions alive is an electoral tactic," he said.

Even the opposition, which has had its share of clashes with Chavez, has taken a deferential tone about the late president.

Instead, Capriles has focused his energy on taking Maduro and the government to task since Chavez lost his two-year battle with cancer, accusing his opponents of exploiting the late leader's death.

"The president is no more. Regrettably, an illness took him," Capriles told a rally.

"But one sees all that's happened since then, and we tell followers of the cause: Don't let yourselves be manipulated -- on the basis of a feeling and a leadership that you believed in -- into taking a decision that is not in the country's interest," he said.

Supporters of the deceased president are still saying goodbye to their hero.

Long lines of people have filed past his tomb in a former military barracks perched in a Caracas slum, a tiny chapel in honor of "Saint Hugo Chavez" was erected near his resting place and official television has shown an animation of Chavez arriving in heaven.

For Lopez Maya, the historian, Venezuelans will be casting "a vote of thanks to Chavez" if they choose Maduro for president.

A representative of an international organization in Caracas, who requested anonymity, said "charismatic leadership cannot be transmitted" and the effects of Chavez's appointment of Maduro as his successor will not last.

"The magic has ended and normal politics begin, which is something that couldn't happen with Chavez," the representative said.

"Maduro will have to answer for the mistakes he commits. We are seeing the death throes of Chavismo and true Chavismo without Chavez will appear on April 15."