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Backers and foes alike are buying Chavez dolls

Douglas Bustamante holds a doll of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at his store in Caracas Friday. The doll repeats revolutionary phrases.
Douglas Bustamante holds a doll of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at his store in Caracas Friday. The doll repeats revolutionary phrases.
Fernando Llano, Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela — Shoppers at Venezuela's biggest mall are snapping up talking dolls of President Hugo Chavez, and a merchant says they've become popular among supporters and foes alike.

The doll sports the Venezuelan leader's signature red military beret and at the pull of a cord repeats a revolutionary slogan: "It's your dream, it's your hope, and it's your job to be free and equal."

Douglas Bustamante, who works at the shop at Caracas' Sambil mall, said he sold out of the 18-inch action figures Friday. He said shoppers have bought 600 from him since they hit the shelves six weeks ago at $28 apiece.

"People of all kinds, Chavez supporters and opponents, have bought them," he told The Associated Press.

Chavez, a former army officer, has drawn both supporters and enemies through his close ties to Cuba's Fidel Castro and his fiery criticism of the U.S. government and Venezuela's wealthy "oligarchy."

Since he was elected in 1998 on promises of helping the poor, Chavez's influence over Venezuelan politics has grown.

"I arrived here to do all humanly possible to help all the Venezuelan people," says another recording in the doll, which is made in China.

He isn't the only Latin leader whose image is being hawked this Christmas.

Stores in the Venezuelan capital carry likenesses of political celebrities past and present, including revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara and Cuba's Castro.

Although only one store appears to be selling the "Chavecito," wooden statuettes and other images of the Venezuelan leader fill stores nationwide.

"Of all the people represented here, Chavez sells the most, people buy Chavez statuettes, sometimes as a joke, to get a rise out of friends who hate him," said Elizabeth Morais, a 32-year-old store clerk who opposes the president.

Henry Falcon, a retired teacher who strongly supports Chavez, laughed aloud when he saw puppets of the Venezuelan leader and former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein hanging in the store window.

"It looks like there's something for everyone here," Falcon said, smiling.

Chavez, an outspoken critic of U.S.-style capitalism, has urged Venezuelans to make their own toys rather than spending money on imported Superman action figures or Barbie dolls. He has instead proposed toys in the image of national founding fathers such as 19th-century independence hero Simon Bolivar.

The Venezuelan leader hasn't publicly mentioned the "Chavecito," though he noted in one recent speech: "The winds of Christmas are blowing."