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Thousands of supporters accompany the hearse carrying the coffin of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on its way to the Military Academy in Caracas, yesterday
CARACAS: Shattered supporters of Hugo Chavez paraded his coffin through the streets of Caracas yesterday in a flood of emotion allies hope will help his deputy win an election due in the coming weeks and keep his self-styled revolution alive.
Tens of thousands of “Chavistas” marched behind the remains of the flamboyant and outspoken president, draped in Venezuela’s blue, red and yellow national flag. Many wept as a hearse flanked by soldiers in red berets carried his coffin through downtown Caracas and loudspeakers played Chavez’s voice singing songs.
Ending one of Latin America’s most remarkable populist rules, Chavez died on Tuesday at 58 after a two-year battle with cancer that was first detected in his pelvis. His body was taken to a military academy to lie in state for three days.
Chavez’s health weakened severely just after his re-election on October 7, possibly due to his decision to campaign for a third term instead of stepping aside to focus on his recovery.
The future of Chavez’s leftist policies, which won him the adoration of poor Venezuelans but infuriated opponents who denounced him as a dictator, now rests on the shoulders of Vice President Nicolas Maduro, the man he tapped to succeed him.
“In the immense pain of this historic tragedy that has affected our fatherland, we call on all the compatriots to be vigilant for peace, love, respect and tranquility,” Maduro said. “We ask our people to channel this pain into peace.”
Maduro, a 50-year-old former bus driver and union leader, will probably face Henrique Capriles, governor of Miranda state, in the next election. Military commanders pledged loyalty to Maduro, who will be Venezuela’s caretaker leader until the election. Soldiers fired 21-gun salutes in barracks across Venezuela at 8am to honour Chavez.
It was not immediately clear where Chavez would be buried. He had ordered a striking new mausoleum built in Caracas for the remains of independence hero Simon Bolivar, his inspiration, and it is due to be finished soon. The government declared seven days of mourning.
The stakes are huge for the region, given the crucial economic aid and cheap fuel the Chavez government supplied to allies across Latin America and the Caribbean. Authorities said the vote would be called within 30 days, as stipulated by the constitution, but did not specify the date.
One recent opinion poll gave Maduro a strong lead over Capriles, in part because he has received Chavez’s blessing as his heir apparent, and he is likely to benefit from the surge of emotion following the president’s death.
The tall, mustachioed Maduro has long been a close ally of Chavez. He immediately pledged to continue his legacy and is unlikely to make major policy changes soon. Maduro will now focus on marshalling support from Chavez’s diverse coalition, which includes leftist ideologues, business leaders and radical armed groups called “colectivos”.
Hours before Chavez’s death, Maduro alleged that “imperialist” enemies had infected the president with cancer and he expelled two US diplomats accused of conspiring with domestic opponents.
A victory by Capriles, 40, a centrist politician who calls Brazil his model for Venezuela, would bring big changes and be welcomed by business groups. “This is not the time to stress what separates us,” Capriles said in a condolence message, calling for unity and respect for the loss that many felt after Chavez’s death. “There are thousands, maybe millions, of Venezuelans asking themselves what will happen, who even feel fear ... Don’t be scared. Don’t be anxious. Between us all, we’re going to guarantee the peace this beloved country deserves.”
“To the pantheon!” shouted Chavez supporters during the parade, which was led by Maduro.
Much of Caracas was quiet overnight, with streets deserted, especially in wealthier districts. Many shops locked their doors in fear of looting as news of Chavez’s death spread. There were long lines outside petrol stations.
Hundreds of emotional “Chavista” loyalists stayed outside the military hospital where he spent his last two weeks. A female TV reporter from Colombia was beaten up, and gunshots were fired in the air. “Chavez lives, the fight continues!” supporters shouted in the streets.
Although they had weeks to come to terms with Chavez’s likely demise, many of his supporters were overcome with grief. “He was our father,” said Nancy Jotiya, 56, sobbing in the city’s central Plaza Bolivar. “He taught us to defend ourselves. Chavismo is not over! We are the people. We will fight!”
There was sadness in other Latin American countries too. Bolivian President Evo Morales flew in stony-faced to join the mourning. The presidents of Argentina and Uruguay also arrived before dawn, state media said. State oil company PDVSA said its installations were functioning normally, and the Central Bank President said Venezuela’s economy was unaffected.
Chavez led Venezuela for 14 years and had easily won a new six-year term in an election in October, defeating Capriles. His folksy charisma, anti-US diatribes and oil-financed projects to improve life for residents of long-neglected slums created an unusually powerful bond with many poor Venezuelans. But critics saw his autocratic style, gleeful nationalisations and often harsh treatment of rivals as hallmarks of a dictator whose misguided policies squandered a historic bonanza of oil revenues.