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?”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
Google celebrates the 126th anniversary of the Eiffel Tower opening its doors to the public for the first time
techGoogle celebrates Paris's iconic landmark, which opened to the public 126 years ago today
Cleopatra the tortoise suffers from a painful disease that causes her shell to disintegrate; her new prosthetic one has been custom-made for her using 3D printing technology
newsCleopatra had been suffering from 'pyramiding'
Life and Style
Baroness Lane-Fox warned that large companies such as have become so powerful that governments and regulators are left behind
techTech giants have left governments and regulators behind
Arts and Entertainment
Coachella and Lollapalooza festivals have both listed the selfie stick devices as “prohibited items”
Nigel Owens was targeted on Twitter because of his sexuality during the Six Nations finale between England and France earlier this month
rugbyReferee Nigel Owens on coming out, and homophobic Twitter abuse
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin visits her 1990s work ‘My Bed’ at Tate Britain in London, where it is back on display from today
artsBut how does the iconic work stand up, 16 years on?
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Web Designer / Front End Developer

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast expanding web managem...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor