Chavez is sick but his merchandise is selling like hot cakes

CARACAS (AFP) - Mr Hugo Chavez is so sick with cancer that he won't show up for his own inauguration for a new term this week. But the cottage industry that lives off Chavez merchandising is quite healthy.

You name it, and the bombastic Comandante's face can be found all over it: T-shirts, baseball hats, jackets, earrings and much, much more.

In a small market in central Caracas not far from the National Assembly, Ms Elisa Flores de Moreno says she has traveled from Merida in far western Venezuela - sent by colleagues to stock up on Chavez gear as the country waits to see if he will pull through his fourth round of cancer surgery.

The 58-year-old Mr Chavez, who was first diagnosed in mid-2011, underwent his latest operation on Dec 11 in Havana and has not been seen in public since.

He won a new six-year term in elections back in October, and was supposed to be sworn in Thursday.

But Mr Chavez cannot return home in time for his inauguration Thursday and so will take the oath of office at a later date before the Supreme Court, the government announced on Tuesday.

The announcement confirming that Mr Chavez is too sick to make it back in time for the Jan 10 inauguration came in a letter to the National Assembly from Vice President Nicolas Maduro.

Meanwhile, Ms Flores de Moreno, 67, says she is mad about Chavez and prays every night for his recovery.

She spoke as she filled a large bag with T-shirts, hats and jackets for colleagues who are equally nuts about Mr Chavez, the garrulous populist and champion of the poor who also irks the United States regularly with anti-imperialist tirades and alignment of his oil-rich country with Iran, Syria, Cuba and other nations not in Washington's favour.

Some of the articles bear the letters PSUV, the Spanish acronym for the ruling socialist party.

Others show the president's face by itself, or Mr Chavez with South American liberator Simon Bolivar or revolutionary commander Ernesto "Che" Guevara.

But the hottest seller these days is a T-shirt with a rectangle surrounding a black and white image of Mr Chavez's face.

"The president's face has been a total success this year, along with the Comandante doll," said shop owner Jorge Moreno.

"It is a subliminal message aimed at the opposition," he added with a chuckle.

All of these items are designed by the presidential palace and distributed to cooperatives that supply them to independent retailers. There is no copyright hassle.

"We do not pay anything back to the government. It is not about capitalism here," said Mr Jorge Moreno, who describes himself as militantly pro-Chavez.

His tiny stall is a veritable Chavez emporium: key rings, pins, pens, mugs, towels, plates and bracelets, all boasting the bright red of the ruling party and Chavez's face and costing next to nothing.

"Many customers come from around the country because they do not have access to these articles where they live," Mr Moreno said. Sales are briskest around election time.

In another shop, located in a big Caracas hotel, the Chavez fervor goes further for those even deeper under its spell: a small bust of the Comandante in military garb or his trademark red shirt, or a Baroque-style clock with a poorly cropped photo of Chavez next to a dial set under chiseled glass.

Mr Sid Marrero, a customer in his 50s, said he had stopped by to pick up some Chavez pins, which he collects.

"It has become a little ritual," Mr Marrero said, adding that these days, with the president so ill, being pro-Chavez has turned into "a real profession."

Ms Sonia, a 51-year-old nurse, expresses disappointment as she leaves the shop. It has run out of the Chavez doll.

"I wanted to do it for my mother, who is a real fanatic. She has all the key rings, the clock, the earrings. All she needed was the doll," she explained.