Published: Thursday, March 7, 2013

Thousands march with Chavez’s coffin

The coffin of Venezuela's late President Hugo Chavez is driven through the streets of Caracas after leaving the military hospital where he died of cancer, in Caracas March 6. Photo: Reuters

The coffin of Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chavez is driven through the streets of Caracas after leaving the military hospital where he died of cancer, in Caracas March 6. Photo: Reuters

Thousands of people have come out onto the streets of Venezuela’s capital Caracas to pay tribute to President Hugo Chavez, who died on Tuesday.

A procession accompanying Chavez’s coffin took more than six hours to reach the Military Academy where he will lie in state until Friday.

The government has announced seven days of mourning for the president.

Chavez, a controversial figure and staunch critic of the US, was seriously ill with cancer for more than a year.

He died aged 58 on Tuesday after 14 years as president.

A self-proclaimed revolutionary, he inspired a left-wing revival across Latin America.

Dramatic images are being broadcast on Venezuelan TV stations, as the hearse of Hugo Chavez crosses the city surrounded by a sea of red flags. People are crying and sobbing, screaming the name of the late president, many wearing red T-shirts and carrying his images.

“We carry you in our heart,” said one woman sobbing on live television. “Long live Hugo Chavez,” she screamed.

Foreign presidents, such as Bolivia’s Evo Morales, are taking part in the procession, together with Chavez’s family members, Vice President Nicolas Maduro and all top government officials.

This is just the beginning of public events to mourn Chavez. The funeral will be held on Friday, and even greater crowds are expected.

Latin American leaders are in Caracas to pay their respects – among them President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of Argentina, Jose Mujica of Uruguay and Evo Morales of Bolivia.

Ecuador, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Uruguay, Chile, Cuba and the Caribbean island of Dominica have declared periods of official mourning.

Another Chavez ally, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, also announced a day of mourning, describing him as a “martyr”.

‘To the pantheon’

On Wednesday morning, a priest prayed for eternal rest for Chavez in a brief ceremony at the hospital where he died on Tuesday.

Officials then put the flag-draped coffin on top of a waiting hearse surrounded by crowds.

The procession began its slow 8km (five-mile) journey through the streets of Caracas, led by officials including Vice-President Nicolas Maduro and accompanied by cheering red-clad supporters.

Some shouted “Chavez to the pantheon”, referring to the mausoleum he built for revolutionary leader Simon Bolivar.

“I’m here to say my final goodbye to my president. There will never be another Chavez. He is the greatest man that this fatherland gave us,” said Jose Gregorio Conde, 34, an education worker, quoted by AFP news agency.

Seven hours later, the streets were still filled with people, some of them crying or clutching pictures of the dead leader, as the coffin arrived at the Military Academy.

Chavez’s illness prevented him from taking the oath of office after he was re-elected for a fourth term in October.

Announcing the president’s death on Tuesday, Vice-President Nicolas Maduro called on the nation to close ranks after its leader’s demise.

“Let there be no weakness, no violence. Let there be no hate. In our hearts there should only be one sentiment: Love.”

A statement from the military said it would remain loyal to the vice-president and to parliament, it added, urging people to remain calm.

Vice-President Maduro will assume the presidency until an election is called within 30 days.

Foreign Minister Elias Jaua told state television that Maduro would also be the candidate of the governing United Socialist Party (PSUV).

Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, whom Chavez defeated in October’s election, offered his condolences to Chavez’s family, saying “we were adversaries, but never enemies”.

Capriles is widely expected to be chosen to stand against the vice-president.

The BBC’s Irene Caselli, in Caracas, says Maduro will probably win, but the question remains whether he will be able to lead Venezuela following the loss of its charismatic president.

Plot?

The exact nature of Chavez’s cancer was never officially disclosed, leading to continuing speculation about his health, and he had not been seen in public for several months.

Last May, the former army paratrooper said he had recovered from an unspecified cancer, after undergoing surgery and chemotherapy in 2011 and a further operation in February 2012.

Despite this, he won another six-year presidential term in October 2012.

Maduro has mentioned a plot against Venezuela, saying he had no doubt that Chavez’s cancer, first diagnosed in 2011, had been induced by foul play by Venezuela’s enemies. The US promptly rejected the accusations as “absurd”.

Two US diplomats had been expelled from the country for spying on Venezuela’s military, Maduro added.

Chavez burst onto Venezuela’s national stage in 1992 to lead a failed military coup.

After two years in prison, he returned to politics and was swept to power in a 1998 election.

A self-proclaimed socialist and revolutionary, he won enduring support among the poor and repeated election victories by using Venezuela’s oil wealth to pursue socialist policies.

His government has implemented a number of “missions” or social programmes, including education and health services for all.

But his opponents accused him of mishandling the economy and taking the country towards dictatorship. Inequality has been reduced but growth overall has been lower than in some other Latin American economies.

Internationally, he was a staunch critic of US “imperialism” and accused Washington of backing a failed coup against him in 2002.

The US described the death as a “challenging time”, reaffirming what it described as its support for the Venezuelan people and its interest in developing a constructive relationship with Caracas.

Later, unnamed Washington officials said a US delegation would be sent to Chavez’s funeral.

Analysts say the death could alter the political balance in Latin America – dealing a blow to leftist states while favouring more centrist countries.

There could also be an economic impact given that Venezuela sells oil at below market prices to some neighbouring countries, especially in the Caribbean.