By Brian Ellsworth
SABANETA, Venezuela (Reuters) - Sitting under the shade of mango trees in the childhood backyard of late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro kicked off his election campaign with a sentimental chat with members of the ex-president's family.
Chavez's five brothers regaled Maduro, the acting president, with stories of how they played marbles and ate mangoes as children on the grassy lawn. It was all part of Maduro's efforts to highlight his ties to the symbolically important family ahead of the presidential election on Sunday.
"The family is here with you, fulfilling Chavez's orders and his legacy, so Nicolas Maduro can be ratified by the people to continue accelerating the Bolivarian revolution," said Chavez's brother Adan, referring to the late leader's socialist movement.
Perhaps inadvertently, the televised event was also a "who's who" of powerful government officials: Chavez's son-in-law, who is the vice president, a cousin who is second-in-command at state oil giant PDVSA, and Adan, who is the governor of their home state of Barinas.
Chavez's death last month shook the OPEC nation after 14 years of his self-styled socialist revolution. But it has done little to curb the influence of relatives whose blood ties to the messianic leader helped them gain considerable power.
Supporters of Chavez, a charismatic anti-poverty crusader whose social spending won him the adoration of millions, see his immediate family as a symbol of the humble roots that gave birth to his "21st century socialism."
Opposition critics deride them as a nepotistic clan that wields undue influence. In western Barinas, where Chavez grew up, adversaries slam them as an ersatz royal family that treats the sweltering plains state as their fiefdom.
Maduro, a 50-year-old former bus driver and the late president's anointed successor, describes himself as a "son" of Chavez and has made the immediate family a central part of his campaign for the April 14 election.
He told stories of how, in the wake of the failed 1992 coup that made Chavez famous, he used to meet with Chavez's brothers Argenis and Adan, ducking in and out of Caracas metro cars to ditch intelligence officers who were following them.
"You are the brother of our commander Hugo Chavez, and we are his sons, which means you are our uncle and protector, a leader of this revolution," Maduro told Adan Chavez onstage at a rally in Barinas.
Chavez's vitriolic insults, sweeping nationalizations and steady concentration of power during his rule led millions to revile and dismiss him as a dictator.
But his nationalism and generous social spending also drew a near-religious following among the poor, and his cult of personality and micro-managing style left everyone from street activists to cabinet ministers scrambling for his attention.
Those with family connections rose through the ranks, and even after his death they remain key power brokers.
His daughters Rosa Virginia and Maria Gabriela served at public events as stand-in first ladies for the twice-divorced Chavez, and were highly visible during the mourning following his death.
They have been important figures in Maduro's campaign to reinforce his ties to Chavez, but have little evident political influence nor ambition.
Rosa Virginia in 2007 married leftist activist Jorge Arreaza, who went on to become science minister and later Chavez's bedside companion during the late president's final weeks.
He was sworn-in as vice president by Maduro hours after Chavez's grand state funeral, standing alongside the glass-topped coffin of his late father-in-law.
Chavez's cousin Asdrubal rose in less than five years from being a manager of a small oil refinery to vice president of PDVSA. Another of Chavez's brothers, Argenis, runs the national electrical utility and is deputy electricity minister.
Adan Chavez won the backing of the ruling Socialist Party to be elected in 2008 and 2012 as governor of Barinas, a post previously held by Chavez's father, Hugo de los Reyes Chavez.
The late president's sympathizers scoff at the idea the family has undue influence or has benefited from nepotism, and insist they should continue to play a big role in politics if Maduro wins Sunday's election, as is expected.
"That's just speculation, trying to make people believe that they have improperly taken something for themselves," said Miguel Angel Leon, a pro-government legislator in Barinas.
"They've earned what they have because of the political work they've done and the support they have as leaders."
Opinion polls give Maduro a lead of between 10 and 20 percentage points although his opponent, Miranda state governor Henrique Capriles, hopes the surge of sympathy over Chavez's death will wear off before Sunday.
Reuters was unable to reach family members for comment. The governorship of Barinas did not answer phone calls, and the mayor of the municipality that includes Chavez's hometown - another brother - was unable to schedule an interview.
Venezuela's opposition, which has a relatively small presence in Barinas, has for years levelled a barrage of corruption accusations against the family. They deny them, and note that no official charges have been brought against any of Chavez's relatives.
Wilmer Azuaje, who is now a state legislator in Barinas, has accused Chavez's family of buying several large estates in the area, alleging that they used a family cook of limited financial means as a straw buyer.
"They're the ones with the most expensive cars, with the most expensive houses," said Azuaje.
"This year we're really going to go after the corruption by the Chavez family."
The family and Chavez's supporters accuse Azuaje himself of corruption, noting that he lost his seat in the National Assembly over alleged tax irregularities.
Supporters of Chavez's family in Barinas say they are humble and true to their origins, and cite achievements of the local government such as investments in healthcare and improvement of roads under the leadership of Adan Chavez.
"They need to continue supporting the revolution," said Ender Puerta, a 45-year-old lawyer interviewed near Maduro's rally in Barinas.
"Their presence will be very important because they gave us Chavez, the kind of man who only appears once every 500 years."
(Additional reporting by Diego Ore in Caracas; Editing by Daniel Wallis, Kieran Murray and Lisa Shumaker)