From Castro to Ahmadinejad, a strange cast turns out for Chavez funeral

Tim Walker sees hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans bid last farewell to leader

His casket closed and cloaked in the Venezuelan tricolour, Hugo Chavez was honoured at a funeral ceremony in Caracas attended by 32 heads of state, 54 foreign delegations, and hundreds of thousands of grieving Chavistas.

The controversial Venezuelan President, known as "El Comandante", died on Tuesday aged 58, after a two-year fight against cancer. The mourners at the city's military academy were led by Mr Chavez's mother, Elena Frias, and his chosen successor, Nicolas Maduro, who was due to be sworn in as the country's interim President following the funeral.

Many of the foreign delegates came from Latin American nations such as Bolivia, Nicaragua, Colombia and Guatemala. Cuba was represented by its 81-year-old President, Raul Castro, a close friend of Mr Chavez. Diplomats from Spain, Russia and China were joined by the British Ambassador to Venezuela, Catherine Nettleton.

Alexander Lukashenko, President of Belarus, was seated alongside the Iranian leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; both received standing ovations as they were introduced as part of an "honour guard", flanking the coffin.

Roy Chaderton, Chavez's former Foreign Minister and now the Venezuelan Ambassador to the Organisation of American States (OAS), said he was not surprised to see so many foreign dignitaries at the event. "The opposition is surprised, because they are feeble-minded," he told The Independent. "They said that under Chavez, Venezuela had become an isolated state, but the opposite is true: it's no small thing that so many leaders took time away from their own national issues to be here today."

Despite anti-American rhetoric in the days since Mr Chavez's death, the US was represented at the funeral by Democratic Congressman Gregory Meeks, and former Democratic Congressman William Delahunt. Civil rights leader Rev Jesse Jackson spoke at the ceremony, telling mourners: "We are neighbours and share the same hemisphere. We play baseball and trade resources and fight drugs together, and share dreams together."

One of Mr Chavez's regional allies, Argentinian president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, left Caracas the night before the funeral, citing the heat and her health. Ms Fernandez, who visited the casket on Thursday, wrote on Twitter: "How I would like to be there! I can't: the heat, my chronic hypotension and the doctor prohibit it." Meanwhile, the late President's civilian supporters massed in the tropical heat outside the academy in red Chavista t-shirts, craning to see the ceremony on giant television screens. The service ended with a lengthy address from Mr Maduro, in which he praised the late President and expounded his philosophy, saying Chavez had wanted "to contribute to the preservation of life on the planet, and of the human species".

Not everyone in Caracas mourned the President's passing. Across the city in the well-to-do Sifrinos neighbourhood, 30-year-old Alejandro Leon spent the national holiday washing his car. Mr Leon, who works in tourism, plans to move to the US in April, to escape the country's soaring crime rate and debt-laden economy. "[Mr Chavez] gave all the nations around us money to improve their security and their highways, but in Venezuela we still have all those problems," he said. "My taxes went to Cuba, to Argentina, to Bolivia. The people who came to the ceremony today are here to make sure the money keeps flowing."

The opposition accused Mr Maduro of exploiting Chavez's death for political gain ahead of the election, with prospective presidential candidate Henrique Capriles describing his rival's swearing-in as a "constitutional fraud". On Thursday, Mr Maduro announced the late President's body would be embalmed before going on permanent display in a crystal casket at a military museum in Caracas, "just like Ho Chi Minh. Just like Lenin. Just like Mao Zedong." This, Mr Maduro told Venezuelans, would mean "his people will always have him… He belongs to you."

Embalmer bids for Chavez job

Frank Malabed, embalmer to celebrities, socialites and the occasional dictator, has offered his services for the preservation of late President Hugo Chavez. The Manila-based mortician, who embalmed Philippine despot Ferdinand Marcos, said that he had not been contacted for the job, but that he was "expecting a call".

"I make people beautiful even in death," the 62-year-old told AFP. "What is important is they must not delay. The longer they delay it, the more difficult it would be."

Challenges ahead

Economy

Venezuela’s poverty rate improved dramatically under Chavez, but its wider economy has been said to live and die by oil prices. Encouraging more oil exports and weaning the country off imports was a motivation behind the currency, the bolivar, being devalued last month.

Violence

Extrajudicial killings by security agents have led Human Rights Watch to describe violent crime in Venezuela as “rampant”. A major reason for this is police corruption and a lack of accountability. A new force was set up in 2009, but continued reforms of the police and the prison system are badly needed.

Censorship

Opposition voices are still prominent, especially in the press. But some television stations have been closed down after criticising Chavez. Greater freedom will be essential if Venezuela is to improve relations with Western countries.

Embalmer bids for Chavez job

Frank Malabed, embalmer to celebrities, socialites and the occasional dictator, has offered his services for the preservation of late President Hugo Chavez. The Manila-based mortician, who embalmed Philippine despot Ferdinand Marcos, said that he had not been contacted for the job, but that he was “ expecting a call”.

“I make people beautiful even in death,” the 62-year-old told AFP. “What is important is they must not delay. The longer they delay it, the more difficult it would be.”

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