CARACAS - Venezuela has its very own caped superhero. He wears a red construction helmet and his weapon is his iron fist. Called "Super-Bigote," he is created in the image of President Nicolas Maduro.
Super-Bigote is Spanish for Super-Mustache, an allusion to the famous bushy lip growth the cartoon character shares with Maduro, and from where he draws the power that makes him "indestructible."
Like Clark Kent turns into Superman, Maduro becomes Super-Bigote on national TV and the internet to bravely defend Venezuela against its enemies -- a recurring rival is a masked, blonde antihero in the White House.
According to a source in the know, who is not allowed to speak to the media, Super-Bigote was commissioned by Maduro's entourage, in 2021.
The brief was to create a hero "at war with imperialism," the source told AFP.
Maduro had referred to himself as Super-Bigote in the past, with one video showing him declaring ironically: "I am not Superman. I am Super-Bigote. Look! A government falls," as he moves his mustache from side to side.
Ten years after the death of his much more popular predecessor Hugo Chavez, Maduro has eagerly embraced propaganda and personality cult as a means of endearing himself to the Venezuelan people.
Super-Bigote is used to deflect blame for the country's multitude of problems: He fights a mechanical mole depriving the country of electricity, a monster preventing the delivery of vaccines, a Frankenstein monster created by the CIA.
The character is everywhere: on baseball caps, T-shirts, in graffiti and official murals in Caracas and other cities and even at carnival, where children and adults alike dress up in Super-Bigote costumes.
Shops do a brisk trade selling Super-Bigote dolls.
Not hell, only purgatory
"It's not a personality cult, it is love of country! It's not the person, but what he represents. He is a leader who fights with us," Balbina Perez, a 65-year-old wearing a Super-Bigote T-shirt at a carnival parade in Caracas, told AFP.
Elias Pino Iturrieta, a retired historian and specialist in personality cults, believes the character of Super-Bigote likely did not come about randomly but was "well thought out."
"Chavez was very popular. Maduro is less so. So we invented this character. You have to find something that makes you think you're not living in hell only in purgatory," Pino told AFP.
Maduro needs all the help he can get. Venezuela has been going through a serious economic crisis since 2013.
GDP has contracted by 80 percent, and hyperinflation has eroded purchasing power. Some seven million of the country's 30 million people have left.
For Pino, Super-Bigote is a "diversion" seeking to soften public anger and dissuade discontent and protests.
"It's a circus trick. Like a trapeze artist who catches your attention. It's great from a marketing point of view, but pathetic in terms of contempt for the population," he said.
It is likely no accident that the initials S.B. are emblazoned on the character's chest.
They are short for both Super-Bigote and for Simon Bolivar -- a Latin American independence hero whose name is reflected in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.
Many Venezuelan leaders, including Chavez, had the habit of invoking Bolivar's name when trying to cast themselves in a good light.
"Politics in Venezuela is totally personalized," said Daniel Varnagy, a political scientist with Venezuela's Simon Bolivar University.
"Chavez is the reference and he has an almost magical or religious power" that is difficult for any successor to live up to, he added.
With Chavez's heroic memory still hanging around, Maduro is fighting to gain more space in the public psyche, said Pino.
"There is ever less Chavez and more Maduro... and Super-Bigote," he said.
© Agence France-Presse