CARACAS (Reuters) - Blood drips from Hillary Clinton’s severed head. The Virgin Mary cradles a machine gun. Karl Marx shares a wall with Hugo Chavez.
An explosion of “revolutionary” graffiti, posters and murals across Venezuela is spreading the Chavez government’s ever-more radical messages to try to form a new generation of socialists and counter opposition propaganda.
“Given that capitalism has taken over the media and tries to distort reality, we are taking our vision onto the street,” said Eduardo Davila, a young graffiti artist with a pro-government group called “Communication Guerrillas.”
The often government-sponsored art fits in with a major push by the Chavez government this year to dominate the public arena, ranging from a presidential Twitter account to training youths in Web skills and painting the houses of the poor.
The profusion of murals, stencils and slogans on Venezuela’s streets has a striking visual effect and a rallying impact on supporters — even though Chavez’s foes dismiss it as a shallow attempt to boost his sinking popularity.
Perhaps the most notable image to spring up recently is a politicized take on Italian master Caravaggio’s “David With the Head of Goliath” that shows a young boy with a sword clutching U.S. Secretary of State Clinton’s bleeding head.
Further illustrating the quick end to Chavez’s early fruitless overture to Barack Obama, another image shows the U.S. president as a manic-eyed half-human and half-robot next to the slogan: “The Empire’s New Toy.”
Given the Chavez government’s bitter political feud with neighboring Colombia, it is no surprise that Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia’s former defense minister and now a presidential candidate, appears on a wall with devil’s horns and wild eyes.
Elsewhere, in murals full of bellicose symbolism, the Virgin Mary and Jesus carry AK-47s.
Those pictures illustrate the self-described Christian- and Marxist-inspired militancy of Chavez, who quotes as often from the Bible as he does from past revolutionary thinkers.
One of the most frequent images to show up is a reproduction of a famous photo from 1989 street riots known as the “Caracazo,” showing three men running through the capital’s streets carrying the corpse of a comrade shot by soldiers.
“Not forgotten, not forgiven,” says a slogan under one picture of the “Caracazo.” The event brought vilification on the government of then-President Carlos Andres Perez, whom former soldier Chavez sought to overthrow three years later in a failed military coup.
Chavez himself shows up frequently in street art, his face on one wall in a line including fellow revolutionaries Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Simon Bolivar.
Street artists have formed groups in Caracas and elsewhere with one taking the name Communicational Liberation Army in a spoof of Colombia’s guerrilla movement, the National Liberation Army.
Chavez and his followers also are taking their propaganda war to new fronts, including the Internet. Chavez’s new Twitter account @chavezcandanga, for example, has become the most followed from Venezuela.
Dozens of teenage students have been formally enrolled and sworn-in as “Communication Guerrillas,” taught filming, web and other skills to counter the traditional anti-Chavez bias of Venezuela’s private media since he took over in 1999.
“These are our weapons: camera, microphone, recorder, the streets, the pamphlets, the murals,” Dayana Serrano, 15, said at a training session for a government initiative that has outraged opposition parties. “We don’t have pistols or anything like that and we hope they never give them to us.”
Chavez’s popularity has dropped this year but, he still retains a near-50 percent approval rating. Much of his popularity comes from social missions in poor neighborhoods — providing free schools and clinics and painting houses for free.
The “Barrio Tricolor” or “Three-color Neighborhood” mission has gathered pace this year, with soldiers going into poor parts of Caracas to spruce up dilapidated houses with a fresh coat of paint, new roofs and other repairs.
Critics deride the initiative as a cheap, vote-winning tactic limited to areas widely seen from highways, and literally painting over communities’ deeper problems.
But for the thousands of residents whose houses are now bedecked in bright Caribbean colors, the gratitude is genuine.
“No other president bothered to do anything for the poor. Chavez is the only one,” said 60-year-old Clemencia Linares, as soldiers in T-shirts emblazoned with Chavez’s face hammered away at her new roof in a Caracas shanty-town.
“This is nothing short of a miracle.”
Additional reporting by Patricia Rondon, Carlos Rawlins and Efrain Otero in Caracas; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Bill Trott