CARACAS, Mar 7 – Venezuelans filed past the open casket of late President Hugo Chavez as he lay in state after throngs of weeping loyalists gave the firebrand leftist a rousing farewell on the streets.
As Venezuelans began three days of goodbyes, an election to succeed Chavez loomed not far in the distance, as the curtain came down on a 14-year socialist presidency that heightened tensions between the poor and the wealthy in the oil-rich nation.
Hundreds of thousands waved flags and chanted “Chavez lives” when his hearse crawled across the capital in a seven-hour trip from the hospital where he died to the academy he once called his second home.
The former paratrooper’s hand-picked successor, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, led the procession, wearing a sombre expression and the colours of the national flag, in what was in effect his debut in an election campaign.
Once at the academy, soldiers removed flowers and other mementos thrown onto the wooden casket by the crowd and Chavez’s grieving mother Elena covered her face with a white handkerchief during a Roman Catholic ceremony.
The coffin was then placed half-opened in the hall, surrounded by his three daughters, son Huguito and a granddaughter, staring sombrely at their father, some choking back tears.
The presidents of Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia, close Chavez allies, and a crowd of officials applauded while many chanted: “Chavez lives, the struggle goes on!”
The doors were then opened for everyday Venezuelans, who stood in a huge line to pay their respects, some making the sign of the cross, others in uniform giving the military salute, as a four-man honor guard stood stiffly.
“His face was beautiful. We will remember him the way he was, the way he lived,” Yelitze Santaella, governor of Monagas state, told AFP after seeing the body, which was not shown directly in state-run television coverage.
Chavez’s death after a near two-year struggle with cancer was a blow to his supporters and to the alliance of left-wing Latin American powers, and it has plunged his OPEC member nation into uncertainty.
A new election is due to be called within what are sure to be 30 tense days, with Maduro, who took over as interim president, likely to face off opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chavez in the October election.
Under Chavez, Venezuela’s oil wealth has underwritten the Castro brothers’ communist rule in Cuba and he repeatedly courted confrontation with Washington by cozying up to anti-Western governments in Russia, Syria and Iran.
Chavez’s body, surrounded by soldiers en route to the academy where he found his political calling as a young man, will lie in state for Venezuelans to see until an official ceremony with foreign dignitaries on Friday.
People watched from their apartment windows while others climbed fences to get a better view of the hearse. Many held or wore iconic images of Chavez.
“The leader is gone, but the ideas will never disappear,” said Roberto Galindez, 32, a former professional basketball player turned computer engineer. “Maduro has the same Chavista doctrine. He will continue with the same ideals.”
The 58-year-old leader died Tuesday, weakened by a respiratory infection after a fourth round of cancer surgery. He had returned to Caracas on February 18 after two months of treatment in Cuba.
The death brought thousands of citizens to public squares across the country, weeping and celebrating the life of a man whose oil-funded socialist revolution delighted the poor and infuriated the wealthy.
But in a country divided by Chavez’s populist style, not everyone agreed on his legacy, with opposition supporters in better-off neighbourhoods still angry.
“Hate and division was the only thing that he spread,” 28-year-old computer programmer Jose Mendoza told AFP in an eastern Caracas opposition bastion. “They want to make him a martyr. It made me laugh.
Some of Chavez’s closest Latin American allies had already arrived Wednesday ahead of the state funeral, including Bolivian President Evo Morales, Argentine President Cristina Kirchner and Uruguay’s Jose Mujica.
The nation’s security forces were deployed after Chavez died but Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said calm reigned in Venezuela, which was rocked by a short-lived coup against Chavez in 2002.
Venezuela’s closest ally, Cuba, declared its own three-day mourning period and dubbed Chavez a “true son” of revolutionary icon Fidel Castro. Eight other Latin American countries followed suit.
A senior US official said the United States – denounced by Chavez as “the empire” – hopes to forge a “positive relationship” with Venezuela once the upheaval of Chavez’s death is over.
Maduro has picked up on Chavez’s anti-US rhetoric, expelling two US military attaches and accusing Venezuela’s enemies of somehow causing the president’s cancer before announcing his death on Tuesday.
Russia, China and Iran hailed Chavez as a man who had cultivated close ties with foes of the West as a way of thumbing his nose at Washington.
And beleaguered Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is trying to crush a revolt against his brutal rule, dubbed Chavez’s death “a great loss for me personally and the Syrian people.”