CARACAS (AFP) - A huge line of Venezuelans filed past the remains of late President Hugo Chavez on Thursday, crying, making the sign of the cross and giving military salutes as an era ended and uncertain elections loomed in the oil-rich nation.
Chavez lay in state in a half-open casket in the Caracas military academy, with a serene face, wearing olive green military fatigues, a black tie and the iconic red beret that became a symbol of his 14-year socialist revolution.
Thousands of people stood in line through the night outside the academy to see the former paratrooper whose oil-funded socialism earned him friends and foes at home and abroad.
“He’s in there, but my comandate is immortal,” said Saul Mantano, a 49-year-old salesman with a Chavez hat and a Venezuelan flag who saw the half-open casket. “I didn’t want to see him dead, but it’s a reality now.”
The country gave Chavez a rousing send-off through the streets of Caracas on Wednesday, one day after he lost his battle with cancer at the age of 58, with a sea of people in red shirts throwing flowers on his coffin.
At the front of the procession was his chosen successor, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, the interim leader who walked the seven-hour march to the academy and is now on a path to elections in the next 30 days.
His mentor now lay in state in a half-opened casket in the hall of the academy where he found his political calling, inspiring the former colonel to lead a failed coup in 1992 before being elected in 1998.
“Maduro is already our president. It’s what Chavez wanted and we will vote for him when elections come,” said a mourner, Margarita Martinez, 37.
Four guards and four tall candelabras flanked the coffin after a ceremony late Wednesday with his tearful mother, three daughters and son, and a crowd of aides as well as the presidents of Argentina, Bolivia and Uruguay, close allies.
The crowd applauded and then chanted “Chavez lives, the struggle goes on!” before the doors opened to the public, which will get to see him until a state funeral on Friday. “His face was beautiful. We will remember him the way he was, the way he lived,” Yelitze Santaella, governor of Monagas state, told AFP after seeing the body. Chavez’s death on Tuesday was a blow to his supporters and to the alliance of left-wing Latin American powers, and it has plunged his OPEC member nation into uncertainty.
Maduro, 50, has now taken the mantle of Chavismo, an ideology that poured the nation’s oil riches into social programs, and will likely face off in elections against opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chavez in the October election.
Under Chavez, Venezuela’s oil wealth has underwritten the Castro brothers’ communist rule in Cuba, and he repeatedly courted confrontation with Washington by cozying up to anti-Western governments in Russia, Syria and Iran.
His death brought hundreds of thousands of supporters to the streets of Caracas, throwing flowers on his casket and shouting “I love you Chavez!” for the man whose revolution delighted the poor and infuriated the wealthy. But in a country divided by Chavez’s populist style, not everyone agreed on his legacy, with opposition supporters in better-off neighborhoods still angry.
“Hate and division was the only thing that he spread,” 28-year-old computer programmer Jose Mendoza told AFP in an eastern Caracas opposition bastion. “They want to make him a martyr. It made me laugh.”
Some of Chavez’s closest Latin American allies have already arrived here ahead of the state funeral, including Bolivian President Evo Morales, Argentine President Cristina Kirchner and Uruguay’s Jose Mujica.
Russia, China and Iran hailed Chavez - who had cultivated close ties with foes of the West as a way of thumbing his nose at Washington - as a great leader, with Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad heading to the funeral. Ahmadinejad “will shortly leave Tehran for Venezuela to attend the funeral” of Chavez who died on Tuesday, the broadcaster announced in the early afternoon. Friday’s funeral of the firebrand leftist will be attended by several heads of state from Latin America and wider afield. On Thursday, mourners filed past his open casket as he lay in state in the capital.