May 22, 2013
Venezuelans bid farewell to Chávez
Sobbing and shouting, a throng of Hugo Chavez's supporters paraded his coffin through the streets of Caracas in an emotional outpouring that could help his deputy win an election to keep his socialist revolution alive.
Hundreds of thousands of "Chavistas" marched behind a hearse carrying the body of the flamboyant and outspoken president, draped in Venezuela's blue, red and yellow national flag.
Avenues resounded with chants honouring the former paratrooper as supporters showered flowers on his coffin and jostled to touch it. Loudspeakers played recordings of the charismatic socialist giving speeches and singing.
Some supporters held heart-shaped placards that read: "I love Chavez!" Others cheered from rooftops, waving T-shirts.
Ending one of Latin America's most remarkable populist rules, Chavez died on Tuesday at age 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 at the tip of a grand esplanade until his state funeral on Friday. Late into the night, a sombre procession of thousands filed past the glass-topped coffin.
Soldiers saluted from behind a red rope and members of the public sobbed. Some were pushed through in wheelchairs. With a touch of the elbow and a quiet word, security men kept the line moving as top members of the government looked on.
The future of Chavez's socialist policies, which won him the admiration of poor Venezuelans but infuriated opponents who denounced him as a dictator, now rests on the shoulders of acting President Nicolas Maduro, the man he tapped to succeed him.
"We ask our people to channel this pain into peace," Maduro said.
Maduro, a 50-year-old former bus driver and union leader, will face Henrique Capriles, the centrist governor of Miranda state, in an election due within weeks in the OPEC nation with the world's largest oil reserves.
Opposition parties and Capriles have agreed he will make another bid for the presidency, sources said on Wednesday.
He lost to Chavez in last year's election but had a respectable 44 percent of the vote, the best performance by any candidate against Chavez in a presidential contest.
One recent opinion poll gave Maduro a strong lead over the 40-year-old Capriles. Maduro, who wore a track-suit top in the colours of the Venezuelan flag and hugged mourners as he stood by Chavez's coffin, will likely benefit from the surge of emotion.
Authorities said the vote would be called within 30 days, as stipulated by the constitution, but did not specify when.
The tall, moustachioed Maduro has long been a close ally of Chavez. He pledges to continue his legacy and it is unlikely he would make major policy changes.
He will now focus on rallying support from Chavez's diverse coalition, which ranges from leftist ideologues to business leaders who have contracts with the state, and armed groups known as "colectivos."
Some have suggested Maduro might try to ease tensions with foreign companies and the U.S. government. Yet hours before Chavez's death, Maduro accused "imperialist" enemies of infecting the president with cancer and expelled two U.S. diplomats accused of conspiring with domestic opponents.
Venezuela's military commanders pledged loyalty to Maduro, who will be caretaker leader until the election, and soldiers fired 21-gun salutes to Chavez in barracks across the nation.
A victory by Capriles, a centrist politician who says Venezuela should follow Brazil's softer centre-left model, would be welcome by investors and bring big changes - although he has called for calm and respect for many people's sense of loss.
"Don't be scared. Don't be anxious. Between us all, we are going to guarantee the peace this beloved country deserves," Capriles said in a condolence message.
Venezuelan debt prices fell on Wednesday as investors locked in gains chalked up in anticipation of Chavez's death, citing short-term political uncertainty.