Hugo Chavez: loyalists pay respects to a leader still in his red beret

Two days after their controversial ruler died, Venezuelans queued for miles to view his body - which will be embalmed 'like Lenin'

Up close, there are few signs of the ravages of the cancer that debilitated Hugo Chavez, or of the treatments that left him bald and bloated for his final public appearances.

Instead, the late Venezuelan president lying in state was a picture of good health, in the red beret of his parachute regiment and the green battlefield dress of a commander-in-chief, in the hall of the military academy in Caracas where he first donned a uniform as a 17-year-old cadet.

Mr Chavez, who was 58, reportedly died on Tuesday of a massive heart attack. Even in death, “El Comandante” retains the charisma to draw a crowd. Two lines had formed to view the body, one for the military and their families, and one for the masses, said to be at least two miles long. Many of those who made it to the front wept or saluted the body as they passed by. Security personnel were on hand to lift small children high enough to view the President’s features beneath the glass lid of his coffin.

Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela’s interim leader, announced yesterday that Mr Chavez’s body would remain on show for a further seven days of national mourning, to allow the “millions” of mourners to see him. The body will then be embalmed “like Lenin”, and permanently displayed in a glass casket at the city’s Museum of the Revolution.

At least 33 heads of state are expected to attend a spectacular state funeral today, including Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, the Iranian President, who wrote in an open letter to the Venezuelan people that he expected Mr Chavez to be resurrected, “with all the righteous people and the Prophet Jesus”.

Among the mourners at the academy was Wilmar Castro Soteldo, a former Lieutenant Colonel in the Venezuelan air force, and now governor of the state of Portuguese, a Chavista stronghold. Mr Soteldo wore the tricolour armband signifying his participation in the coup of 1992, for which he was imprisoned alongside Mr Chavez. He told The Independent: “Even the opposition is grieving; they have sent me messages paying their respects.”

Outside, 61-year-old Amalia Garcia had been waiting since 5am to catch a glimpse of the leader’s body. Ms Garcia grew up in poverty in the barrios of Caracas, she said, but thanks to social programmes instituted by the Chavez government, she had begun to receive benefits, and finally learned to read and write. “Chavez was like a father to us,” she said.

The impeccably kept military academy – Chavez’s alma mater – bears the stamp of his rule. An eternal flame burns at a memorial to those who died in the attempted coups of 1992. The parade ground is overlooked by a monument to Chavez’s revolutionary role model, Simon Bolivar, who first led Venezuela to independence in the 19th Century. In his youth, Chavez was an aspiring baseball player, and his government later funded the construction of a stadium in the academy grounds.

Away from the concentrated crowd of mourners, Caracas was uncharacteristically quiet, locals said. Schools and universities were closed, the bars and hotels had stopped serving alcohol, and shops pulled down their shutters early as the city’s seven days of mourning continued.

On Wednesday, Vice-President Maduro – Chavez’s chosen successor – declared himself the country’s interim President, despite a constitutional provision designating the leader of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, for the role. Though both men belong to Chavez’s ruling PSUV party, there is speculation that Maduro and Cabello are rivals behind closed doors, with each commanding distinct power blocs among the electorate. Mr Maduro is widely predicted to win the upcoming election, which under the constitution must take place within 30 days of the late President’s death, though no date has been set. He will likely do battle for the votes of an increasingly polarised electorate with opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who was defeated by Mr Chavez in last October’s presidential race. Whoever wins will have to preside over a troubled nation with a fast-rising debt and the second highest murder rate in Latin America.

Speaking at his law office in the capital’s Mercedes district, Ezequiel Zamora, a former vice-president of the National Electoral Council (CNE), said he hoped the government would hold the election under fair and transparent conditions. Mr Zamora, an outspoken critic of the Chavez administration, was outraged by the government’s disregard for the constitution it composed in 2000, at the dawn of Chavez’s presidency. “I believe Chavez was not a good President, and I believe Maduro is going to be worse,” Mr Zamora said.

In a reflection of the growing closeness between the PSUV government and the military, the Venezuelan Minister of Defence Admiral Diego Molero, who according to the constitution ought to remain impartial, has pledged the military’s support to Maduro in the expected election.

For that, said Mr Zamora: “He should be kicked out right now.” Mr Zamora also speculated that Mr Chavez, who had not been seen in public for three months prior to his death, may have passed away earlier than reported. “One thing you can say about Chavez is that you couldn’t shut him up,” he said. “Can you imagine him going 83 days without a word?”

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