Late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez actively lobbied in heaven to get Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio elected as Pope Francis I, interim president Nicolas Maduro has joked.

Venezuela's colourful leader, who died on 5 March, had a decisive influence on the election of the Argentinian cardinal as the first Latin American pope in history, Maduro said.

"For the first time in history a South American has been elected Pope, an Argentine. Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio will be the 266th Pope," Maduro said in a television interview. "The debate was between an African and a South American.

"We know that our commander rose to the heights and is face to face with Christ," he continued. "He must've influenced [Christ] to convene a South American Pope. Some new hand arrived and Christ said, 'Well, it is the time for South America.'"

"One of these days he is going to call a constitutional congress in heaven to change the church in the world, so that the people, only Christ's pure people rule in this world," he predicted.

Bergoglio was named Pope Francis I after two days of voting at the Vatican to become the Catholic Church's 226th pontiff. Known for his simplicity and humility, Bergoglio is also the first pope to not come from Europe.

Argentine's president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner sent delayed and restrained congratulations to the new pontiff. Bergoglio was notoriously at odds with Fernandez's positions favouring same-sex marriage, free contraception and artificial insemination.

She once called Bergoglio's attitude towards gay rights "medieval".