* Love songs, prayers for Chavez all over state media
* President fights to recover from cancer surgery
CARACAS, Dec 18 (Reuters) - Gathered in the yard of a small
home in the Venezuelan countryside, a young man with dreadlocks
asks a bearded musician clutching a guitar: "Who can Chavez rely
"All of us! Let me tell you who we are," the older man
replies, breaking into song over gritty images of working-class
life in the South American country led by socialist President
"We are the poor. We are all with Chavez!" he sings, over
footage of construction workers, farmers and youngsters in the
ghetto lip-syncing to the lyrics.
The video is the latest in a wave of adoring coverage that
is running around the clock on state television as Chavez, 58,
fights to recover from cancer surgery.
Chavez has been the dominant figure in Venezuela since he
won power 14 years ago, forging a passionate following based on
his charisma, humble birth and massive social spending.
His new absence in Cuba - and the possibility that after his
fourth operation in 18 months he could die or be unable to
continue as president - has sent a shockwave through supporters.
Punctuated by occasional bulletins on the president's
condition, government media have pushed their always
Chavez-heavy output to hagiographic levels - es pecially ahead of
the Dec. 16 regional elections in which his ruling Socialist
Party hammered the opposition by winning 20 out of 23 states.
One video, set to uplifting music, is a montage of prayers
for Chavez's health from around the country, with military
officers, government ministers and regular Venezuelans hugging.
"Chavez is life!," says one soldier in another typical video
entitled "Give joy to my heart", accompanied by soft-focus shots
of the smiling president hugging babies, kissing their mothers
and playing baseball with children.
'YOU TOO ARE CHAVEZ'
In another, filmed from an aircraft on a headland by the
sea, hundreds of red-clad loyalists arrange themselves into
giant letters forming the words "Long Live Chavez!" alongside a
house-sized poster of "el Comandante" and a Venezuelan flag.
Chavez has fostered the quasi-personality cult, declaring
during the election campaign earlier this year that he had
become "the people" - and vice versa.
"You too are Chavez," was his main slogan.
After the president regained consciousness following last
Tuesday's complex six-hour operation in Havana, an aide said his
first words were: "How are my people?"
Chavez is being treated in Cuba, where information is
tightly controlled and his close friend and political mentor
Fidel Castro all but wrote the book on how to use propaganda and
the state media to build a towering presence.
From the giant poster of Chavez surrounded by smiling
children that greets visitors in the passport hall at Maiquetia
airport, to the billboards bearing his likeness along the
highway to Caracas, it is hard to escape the president's image.
His face adorns newspapers, posters and clothing - one line
of T-shirts shows only his eyes, above a tiny signature. Various
candidates for Sunday's elections simply played his words at
their closing rallies.
Chavez has cast his "21st century socialism" as almost a
second coming of his idol Simon Bolivar, setting out his
self-styled revolution in the imagery of Bolivar's 19th century
battle to free the region from colonial power Spain.
On Monday, the two ideas overlapped, with the government
commemorating the 182nd anniversary of Bolivar's death - it is
finishing a grand new mausoleum in downtown Caracas to house his
jeweled coffin - while in nearby Plaza Bolivar, children
gathered for another event to pray for Chavez's health.
"There are two important things in life: our liberator Simon
Bolivar and our president, Hugo Chavez. Get better soon my
comandante," one shy young girl with pig-tails told state TV.
The information ministry has published a report called
"Loyalty to Chavez - The Fatherland is Safe", fronted by a
picture of Chavez and his newly named heir apparent, Vice
President Nicolas Maduro, sitting under a painting of Bolivar,
Chavez holding an ornate replica of Bolivar's sword.
Some in the opposition's more radical wing have been
spreading their own counter-propaganda. One email doing the
rounds in recent days agreed that no one wished Chavez ill
health, but then listed the harsh treatment it said the
president had meted out to rivals in the past.
"His situation doesn't make me happy, but neither does it
make me lose sleep," the email said. "Everyone's day comes, and
the executioner cannot ask for clemency."
Even if he dies, Chavez's influence will be felt on
Venezuelan politics for years - perhaps not unlike Argentine
leader Juan Peron, whose 1950s populism remains the ideological
foundation of the country's dominant political party.
In the shorter term, Maduro will aim to associate himself as
closely as possible with Chavez's public image.
If Chavez had to step down, a new election would be held
within 30 days. The vice president would hope that his boss's
blessing would be enough for him to beat likely opposition
candidate Henrique Capriles, while also keeping a lid on the
ambitions of Socialist Party rivals.
Demonstrating the power of Chavez's endorsement was the
victor in the biggest upset in Sunday's gubernatorial elections:
former army officer Arias Cardenas, who toppled opposition
heavyweight Pablo Perez in oil-rich Zulia state.
Cardenas had received Chavez's fulsome backing at a rally
before October's presidential vote, and in what must have been
the envy of fellow candidates, his own campaign video showed
Chavez in a red beret, his arm flung round Cardenas' shoulders.
"I need you, Pancho," said an emotional Chavez, using
Cardenas' nickname. "We'll be together forever, brother, to
continue fighting for the humble people of Venezuela!"
On Sunday, Cardenas claimed Venezuela's most populous state.