CARACAS, Mar 8 – World leaders were to join hundreds of thousands of mourners at a state funeral for Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez on Friday, as his political heir vowed to embalm the towering leftist leader “like Lenin.”
The funeral for the firebrand Latin American populist was set to begin at 11:00 am (1530 GMT), and was to be followed by the swearing-in of his handpicked successor Nicolas Maduro, who plans to call for elections.
Fifty-five world leaders were expected at the funeral, including Cuba’s Raul Castro, Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Belarussian strongman Alexander Lukashenko, fellow bugbears of the West long courted by the anti-US Chavez.
Chavez, a former paratrooper whose socialist revolution delighted the poor and infuriated the wealthy, will be embalmed “like Ho Chi Minh, Lenin and Mao” and kept in a glass casket to be seen “for eternity,” Maduro said Thursday.
Maduro said the body will be taken to the “Mountain Barracks” in the January 23 slum that was a bastion of Chavez support, a facility that is now being converted into a Museum of the Revolution.
It was there that Chavez had spearheaded what proved to be a failed coup against president Carlos Andres Perez on February 4, 1992. His arrest turned him into a hero, leading to his first of many election victories in 1998.
But Maduro suggested that Chavez may one day be moved elsewhere, a nod to popular pressure for him to be taken to the national pantheon to lie alongside Latin American independence hero Simon Bolivar.
The National Assembly president, Diosdado Cabello, said Maduro would be formally sworn-in as acting president at 7:00 pm (2330 GMT) after the funeral, and that he would “call for elections.”
The national electoral council is tasked with setting a date for elections, which must be called within 30 days under the constitution.
As the tense political transition gets under way, the farewell to Chavez has also been extended, with Maduro saying the public viewing period would last at least seven more days after the funeral.
Chavez lay in a half-open, glass-covered casket in the academy’s hall, wearing olive green military fatigues, a black tie and the iconic red beret that became a symbol of his 14-year socialist rule.
The government said more than two million people had come since Wednesday to get a glimpse of their hero, whose petrodollar-fueled socialism earned him friends and foes at home and abroad. Many stood in line through the night.
“He’s in there, but my comandante is immortal,” said Saul Mantano, a 49-year-old salesman with a hat emblazoned with Chavez’s name and the Venezuelan flag. “I didn’t want to see him dead, but it’s a reality now.”
Soldiers and civilians, many clad in red, walked past the casket with just seconds to pause, pumping their fists to their hearts or blowing kisses.
They were forbidden from taking pictures or carrying cellphones.
Chavez lay with a red sash across his torso bearing the word “militia” — the name of a 120,000-strong armed civilian force that he had formed to spearhead his so-called Bolivarian Revolution.
A four-man honor guard and four tall candelabras flanked the coffin, with a golden sword at the foot of it.
The country gave Chavez a rousing send-off through the streets of Caracas on Wednesday, one day after he lost his battle with cancer at the age of 58, with a sea of people in red shirts throwing flowers on his coffin.
A Philippine mortician famous for installing deceased dictator Ferdinand Marcos in a glass display case offered his services early Friday, stressing that authorities must act quickly if they want to preserve the body properly.
“I have not been contacted for it but I am always expecting a call. I will process anyone, anywhere,” Frank Malabed, 62, told AFP in Manila.
Chavez’s death was a blow to the alliance of left-wing Latin American powers he led, and has plunged his OPEC member nation into uncertainty.
Maduro, 50, has now taken on the leadership of Chavismo, an ideology that poured the nation’s oil riches into social programs.
After being sworn in as acting president, he will likely face off in elections to be called within 30 days against opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chavez in the October presidential polls.
In a country divided by Chavez’s populist style, opinions of his legacy vary, with opposition supporters in better-off neighborhoods angry at the runaway murder rate, high inflation and expropriations.
“Things have gotten worse. Venezuela used to be safer, we could afford to buy things,” said Inacio Da Costa, a 20-year-old university law student eating ice cream in a square in the opposition’s bastion in the east of the city.
“There’s a lack of security, and our money is worth nothing.”
Chavez was just as polarizing on the international stage.
Under Chavez, Venezuela’s oil wealth underwrote 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.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad again expressed his condolences as he arrived in Venezuela early Friday, calling Chavez “a symbol for all those who seek justice, love and peace in the world.”
Chavez’s closest ally, Cuban President Raul Castro, had earlier said his friend had died “undefeated, invincible, victorious” after “entering through the great door of history.