The dynasty was saved and its members had come to give thanks – one shiny sports utility vehicle after another turned into Plaza Bolivar to deposit a Chávez in front of the church.
A brass band struck up Venezuela’s national anthem and throngs of supporters in red T-shirts reached out to touch the triumphant clan as it made its way to the front of the altar.
President Hugo Chávez was in the capital, Caracas, but his parents and five brothers were in Barinas this week to celebrate their continued rule over a rural fiefdom dubbed the cradle of the Bolivarian revolution.
The president’s father, Hugo de los Reyes, was handing over the state governor’s reins to his eldest son, Adan. “Thanks be to God,” beamed the relieved patriarch.
Not everyone was feeling grateful. A rebellion almost toppled the clan in regional elections last month and there have been cries – though so far no proof – of ballot box fraud.
It is the latest allegation against the so-called “royal family of Barinas”. The family has long been accused of nepotism, corruption and tainting the principles of Latin America’s leading leftist experiment.
“It is a corrupt dynasty. They talk about socialist revolution but they are practising vulgar capitalism,” said Wilmer Azuaje, a politician who broke with the president’s PSUV party and ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Barinas. “This country needs a socialist revolution but what we have is robbery, a robo-lution.”
Despite such attacks the family survived a challenge from breakaway “chavistas” to eke out a narrow election victory that should secure its pre-eminence. But the perception of sleaze risks turning Barinas into a symbol of misrule.
That is something the president, 54, can ill afford as he pushes for a controversial referendum to abolish term limits. Pollsters say discontent over inflation, corruption and poor public services could sabotage his dream of indefinite re-election. He narrowly lost a similar referendum last year.
“Everybody thinks Chávez is honest but they can’t say that about his government. And I don’t think his family has behaved well,” said Larry Birns, head of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a Washington-based think-tank. “Corruption could have a chilling impact on Chávez’s prospects if there isn’t an all-out war against it.”
The president has promised a “revolution within the revolution” to purge the rot, which he admits is a problem, but has defended his family.
Barinas is an unlikely revolutionary cradle: plains of cattle, corn and palm trees stretching towards the Andes with the occasional dusty, hardscrabble town. Yet it was from here that young Hugo emerged, via the army, to head a radical political movement named after the 19th century liberation hero Simon Bolívar.
The fervour that swept the former tank commander to the presidency in 1998 also swept his father, a retired schoolteacher, to the governor’s mansion in their home state. While Hugo drove South America’s energy giant toward socialism and showdowns with the US, his parents and brothers busied themselves in Barinas.
Argenis, 50, was made secretary of state, a specially created post to rove across local government. Narciso, 53, headed a health and sports programme. Anibal, 51, became mayor of the town of Sabaneta, the president’s birthplace. Adelis, 43, became vice-president of a bank with close government links.
The president’s mother Elena Frias, 73, headed a children’s charity and overhauled a dowdy image with facelifts, designer clothes and a poodle named Coqui. Her cosmetic surgeon caused a rumpus when he complained about being blacklisted from a golf club because of his association with the family.
The Chávez name was emblazoned across the state on billboards and banners. In contrast to predecessors who used a single car the new governor travelled in a convoy of SUVs. Rumours about the family were traded as if it was a soap opera.
Record oil revenues washed through state coffers but contracts for public works skirted open tender through the use of emergency decrees, with 18 “emergencias” cited between 2004 and 2006, according to an Associated Press count.
The result, said critics, was cronyism, shoddy work and waste, including a $93m (£63.6m) football stadium, which, like many infrastructure projects, remains unfinished. Some $700m has been promised for an international airport even though the current one has just six flights daily.
Locals grumble that roads close to Chávez properties were paved while highways crumbled and that the family contradicted official land redistribution policy by acquiring big estates.
Azuaje, the dissident “chavista” politician, presented parliament with documents alleging the family used employees as frontmen to buy 17 farms. He suggested the money was siphoned from the state purse.
A parliamentary investigation stalled and local prosecutors showed little interest in pursuing the claims. Family supporters said the allegations were baseless. “Where is the proof? Without proof there is no crime,” said Jesus Ruiz, chief of the state’s civil defence.
The family kept power in Barinas not through skullduggery but by providing free education, health and food, said Gabriel Perez, 49, a farmer. “That is why I vote for them.”
The Chávez family declined interview requests but the new governor, Adan, 55, paused outside the thanksgiving mass to express disdain for talk of a corrupt dynasty. “I am not going to respond to that. That is what the squalid ones say.”
In his office next to the church, the bishop of Barinas, Ramon Linares Sandoval, a high-profile critic, fumed. Courts would not investigate corruption while a Chávez was governor, he said. “Venezuela’s institutions have been kidnapped. Adan’s victory will protect the family.”
Red-clad crowds were gathering outside his window but the bishop was not going to attend the victory mass. “I haven’t been invited.”