Chavez fervent followers take stock of the future

Once seemingly unthinkable, the prospect of life here without Hugo Chavez is slowly sinking in among even the cancer-stricken Venezuelan leader's most fervent supporters.

In places like 23 de Enero, a bastion of "Chavismo" in the slum-covered hills that overlook the presidential palace in downtown Caracas, residents still say they expect him to live forever.

But for the first time in the 14 years of Chavez's all-encompassing embrace as president, they are beginning to acknowledge openly that their beloved "Comandante" may not survive his nearly 19-month-long battle with cancer.

"The people of Venezuela will continue to follow the lead of this revolution beyond the loss of a leader," said Miguel, a spokesman for one of the communal councils Chavistas have set up to run neighborhood affairs in 23 de Enero.

The sprawling public housing project is itself a potent political symbol in Venezuela, named for the date of a 1958 coup that ushered in the country's modern democratic era.

Built more than 50 years ago, the giant apartment blocks that rise on the hillsides had become decrepit, crime-ridden no-go zones when Chavez swept to power in 1999 as a champion of the poor.

Since then, he has lavished money and attention on 23 de Enero, repairing broken elevators and lighting and cleaning up the place with the help of volunteers like Miguel, a 35-year-old who wears a black Beret with a Chavez pin affixed to it.

He says it is now an orderly neighborhood with schools, clinics, public transportation and parks.

Portraits of revolutionaries and guerrilla leaders -- Che Guevara, FARC guerrilla leader Manuel Marulanda, even Moamer Kadhafi, a Chavez ally who was ousted and killed in Libya in 2011 - look down from murals on neighborhood walls.

"The people regard Chavez as invincible," said Miguel, who would not give his full name.

"Chavez will return. We are going to see our Comandante Chavez healthy, we will see our Comandante Chavez free of all evil and we await him with great enthusiasm."

But if not, he said, "the people, the oppressed classes will take the mandate" to continue Chavez's socialist program.

Whether Chavez's Bolivarian Revolution has a future without him will depend in large part on whether a movement with no other dominant figures can retain his broad popular following.

Before leaving for Cuba for his fourth round of surgery last month, Chavez named Vice President Nicolas Maduro as his choice to take the leadership if he is unable.

"You elect Maduro president of the republic, I ask this of you from the bottom of my heart," he told his followers.

Maduro has taken on a more visible role since then, but the mustachioed former bus driver and union leader has yet to truly step out of Chavez's shadow.

But if Maduro is the man, Miguel insists he will support him.

"We are going to respect the decision of El Comandante," he said.

Elisabeth Torres, who sells sweets and other odds and ends from a stand in 23 de Enero that she owns thanks to a grant from the government, agreed.

"We are going to go ahead and do just what he said. We're going to continue counting on the support of the person he leaves in place," she said.

Torres voice cracks and her eyes fill with tears when she thinks about it, though.

"Every day I ask God not to take him."

Others say they are convinced that the president will return from Cuba stronger than ever, adding that Chavez himself had taught them to be optimistic.

"That's why we don't think Chavez will let us down. Chavez is going to be with us always," said Gustavo Marquez.

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