Maldonado's triumph unites polarised Venezuela

CARACAS Mon May 14, 2012 2:15pm BST

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CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan driver Pastor Maldonado's remarkable first Formula One victory brought a rare moment of national unity to a homeland bitterly divided months before a presidential vote.

The 27-year-old driver has been closely associated with President Hugo Chavez's socialist government due to numerous friendly appearances alongside the Venezuelan leader and the sponsorship of state oil company PDVSA.

Yet his thrilling Spanish Grand Prix win on Sunday - the first for a Venezuelan - elevated him beyond a symbol of Chavez's socialism into a cherished national hero.

"Our shepherd," was the headline in the normally anti-Chavez El Universal newspaper, playing on the Spanish-language meaning of his first name "Pastor".

"He has united the nation with his triumph in Spain."

Scores of Venezuelans tooted horns and unfurled banners around Caracas saying "Maldonado, pride of Venezuela!"

In repose after latest cancer treatment, Chavez tweeted his jubilation. "I said so: Our Pastor Maldonado won, making history. Bravo Pastor! Congratulations to you and all your fighting team! We shall overcome!"

Not to be outdone, his opponent in the upcoming October 7 presidential election, Henrique Capriles, also sent his congratulations via Twitter.

"Fantastic Maldonado! Congratulations for Pastor, for Aragua (his state) and for all our Venezuela with this triumph in Formula One. Long live Venezuela!"

LAUGHING STOCK

During Chavez's 13-year rule, the South American nation has become deeply polarised, with supporters seeing him as a messiah overcoming decades of injustice and foes casting the president as a dangerous dictator.

The national jubilation over Maldonado's echoed last year's feel-good over Venezuela's soccer team, which was the laughing stock of the region for years before finally starting to perform decently in recent tournaments.

As with their support for Maldonado, both Chavez and Capriles tout their love of the soccer team for barely-disguised electoral purposes.

State oil company PDVSA, which has controversially ousted a local private company to take over sponsorship of the national soccer team, has been backing Maldonado since his debut season last year. It is unknown how much money PDVSA has put in.

"Venezuela has covered itself with glory," said PDVSA, whose oil revenues have financed Chavez's self-styled "revolution" since he took power in 1999.

Maldonado's beaming face and clenched fist dominated newspaper headlines and television footage.

In the most dramatic day of his life, Maldonado not only brought a first win for his success-starved Williams team in nearly eight years, but then carried a young cousin to safety after fire engulfed his team's garage.

That only added to his aura of heroism back home.

The usually modest and softly-spoken Maldonado was ecstatic.

"I think there is a new generation coming in Formula One which will be talked about a lot," he said. "This has been my first podium and my first victory. You can imagine how I feel."

(Editing by Marianna Parraga and Pritha Sarkar)

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