Hundreds of thousands of red-shirted Chavistas filled the streets of Caracas today to honour Venezuela’s dead President, Hugo Chavez.
They came on the highways, two to a motorcycle, or on the back of brimming trucks to see the coffin of “el Comandante” borne across the capital from the military hospital where he finally succumbed to cancer on Tuesday to the military academy where he will lie in state today.
Against a backdrop of billboards and graffiti honouring Mr Chavez, people massed on roofs, while the crowds below them roared: “Chavez vive! La lucha sigue!” (“Chavez lives, the struggle continues”). Others wept or prayed for the man known as Corazon del Pueblo, “the heart of the people”.
Jasmin Camero, a 38-year-old schoolteacher from Cua, in Miranda state, said between sobs, “Chavez is dead, the great hero of South America! He gave the country to the poor, he made them visible, he dignified us. Tell the world: we are all Chavez.”
The hearse, laden with flowers, was almost lost in the sea of red as it was taken to the military school, where Chavez’s body will remain until his burial tomorrow. His supporters hope he will be laid to rest at Venezuela’s National Pantheon of military heroes, alongside the 19th-century revolutionary Simon Bolívar.
Yanky Rodriguez, 35, a mechanic, watched the procession from the sidelines. “I am here to support the revolution, to show my love for the President,” Mr Rodriguez said. Under Mr Chavez’s rule, he said, his son had been given a computer, his daughter’s school had been rebuilt, and the family had been moved to better housing.
Mr Rodriguez said he supported Vice President Nicolas Maduro as the country’s next leader.
However, despite her deep affection for Mr Chavez, another mourner, 54-year-old Niriam Perez said she would not support Mr Maduro, the late President’s chosen successor. “He lied too much to the people,” she explained, saying Mr Maduro could not expect Venezuelans to vote for him after he kept them in the dark about Mr Chavez’s condition. The late leader had not been seen in public since December last year. “It’s not fair that he was hidden from the people.” she said.
Among world leaders already in the capital were Argentina’s President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, Uruguay’s Jose Mujica, and the Bolivian President Evo Morales.
It was unclear if there would be any public viewing of Mr Chavez’s body at the academy. What is certain, however, is that tomorrow’s funeral will be an extravagant display of national grief – with supporters bussed in from around the nation to cram the streets – in keeping with the larger-than-life personality of Mr Chavez himself.
A Colombian reporter was reportedly assaulted outside the military hospital on Tuesday, and a few student protesters’ tents were set alight by Chavez loyalists, but otherwise this riot of grief has been a peaceful one.
The bigger challenges will come, however, when the funeral rituals are over. The stakes are high not only for Venezuela, where political divisions are fierce, but for the wider region and especially for the allies Mr Chavez cultivated. Cuba, which receives billions of dollars in subsidies from Caracas, has particular reason to be nervous about what turn the country takes.
Today, Vice President Nicolas Maduro appeared to be the de facto leader, pending a snap election that, according to the Constitution, must be held within 30 days. No date is yet set.
In a potentially ominous sign it appeared a Constitution provision designating Diosdado Cabello as interim president was being ignored. Some wondered meanwhile whether children of Mr Chavez might try to insert themselves into the transition process.
Meanwhile the Defence Minister, Admiral Diego Molero, said he would pledge military support to Mr Maduro against Mr Capriles – a vow that violates a constitutional ban on the involvement of the military in politics.
Critics of the former President were also already making themselves heard, meanwhile. “Hugo Chavez will be remembered as an extraordinary politician and as a failed leader,” the nation’s former Trade Minister, Moises Naim, told The Miami Herald. “The Venezuela he leaves behind is politically polarised, economically weak, and terrifyingly murderous. But mostly it is poorer, more unjust and vastly more corrupt than what it was before Hugo Chavez ruled it.”
Arguably of greatest concern to Venezuelans has been the failure of the government to contain rising violence. The country is second only to Honduras in Latin America for murder rates.
There was every sign that Mr Maduro would honour Mr Chavez’s legacy of using anti-American rhetoric to stir his supporters. Even before the President’s death was announced, Venezuela ejected two American diplomats charging they had been conspiring to destabilise the state.
“This is a government that is beginning to blame the United States for all its troubles,” Javier Corrales, a political scientist at Amherst College in Massachusetts said.