Over the past few days here in Venezuela it has been almost impossible to meet a single person who didn't have a deeply held opinion on the direction their country is headed.

Those opinions, of course, varied widely. But they tended to be determined by one factor: how that individual felt about Hugo Chavez.

Mingling with the Chavistas outside the military academy where the late president is lying in state (and will be for some time yet, even as the election campaign begins), I heard time and again how Chavez was a great man, a hero who had brought justice to the poor of Venezuela and stood up against the imperialists in Washington.

"He changed the country, the politics," a young man wearing a red Chavez T-shirt told me outside the academy. He had been waiting in line five hours to file past the former president's casket.

For this young man, the country was on the right track. The Bolivarian revolution that Chavez had championed at home, and throughout Latin America, must continue.

Meanwhile, away from the mourning crowds, in the middle-class and wealthy neighbourhoods of Caracas, the conversations I had were very different.

In these places, Chavez is regarded as a disaster, a leader who wrecked the economy and wasted so much of Venezuela's stupendous oil revenues, the proof being the street crime, the food shortages and the electricity brownouts that dog so much of the country.

"No one works," one exasperated woman told me. "Everyone gets a paycheque from the government and most of our industries, commercial business, all of them are dead."

Capriles to run again

This woman didn't go so far as to say she was glad Chavez was dead, but she did admit she hoped his death would bring better times to her country.


Opposition leader Henrique Capriles waves his own book-sized copy of the constitution around as he announces he will run again at the head of a united opposition. (Associated Press)

And given these polarized views, it's not surprising that Hugo Chavez has become the first big issue of the election scheduled for April 14.

Chavez's chosen successor, a long-time colleague and the former foreign minister, Nicolas Maduro, has played to the Chavistas' electoral base.

He has adopted their hero's rhetoric, speaking style and even style of dress.

As he was sworn in as interim-president — including a symbolic swearing in beside Chavez's coffin — Maduro railed against the U.S., global capitalism and his party’s opponents, just like Chavez used to do.

His catchphrase has become "Yo soy Chavez" or "I am Chavez," a slogan that crowds in the streets chanted as well, and had been doing since shortly after the late president's death was announced last week.

The government's handing of the funeral, as well as its decision to preserve his body and put it on display, are also being seen here as a political manoeuvre, an attempt to cash in on the outpouring of grief and emotion for Chavez and turn it into votes.

"The decision to embalm him, this decision to prolong this sort of pilgrimage … they need to prolong that as long as they can," says Antonio Cova, a university professor and columnist at the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal.

Cova is a strong critic of the government and sees Maduro and his ruling party as incapable of fixing the problems facing Venezuela.

Still, he thinks that, for all his faults, Maduro will win next month, in part because his party has played the public sympathy for Chavez so well.

"The opposition is not going to win the next election," he says. "It’s not possible at all."

Still, the opposition, at least publicly, has more confidence than that, and Henrique Capriles, the governor of Miranda province who ran against Chavez in the last election, has announced he will run against Maduro in April.

Many thought the popular Capriles wouldn't run again, to save his reputation for a better opportunity down the road.

But "I am not going to give you a free pass," he told Maduro Sunday night. "You will have to beat me with votes."

The 40-year-old Capriles put up a strong showing at the head of a united and organizationally impressive opposition coalition in the presidential elections in October, losing 54-44 against Chavez, who appeared to have rallied from his sick bed.

Now, Capriles accuses Maduro of manipulating the death of Chavez and using his body as a prop for his electoral campaign.

Maduro shot back, accusing Capriles of inciting hatred, and both men have taken to waving around the little books of the Venezuelan constitution to make their respective cases.

With the two main contenders arguing over the man who used to hold the top job, it would be easy to think Venezuela had no pressing issues to address.

Of course, that isn't the case. Rampant crime, a stumbling economy, high inflation and a devalued currency are all problems for whomever wins in April.

But it is hard to see these getting much traction this time out, with the ghost of Hugo Chavez hanging over this campaign the way it is.