Death of Hugo Chávez

| Mar. 10, 2013 | Caracas, Venezuela

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Many saluted, some made signs of the cross and others wailed, flinging their arms over the casket, having to be restrained by security. This week, millions of Venezuelans paid their respects to Hugo Chavez who succummed to the cancer that has plagued his last two years.

His funeral on Friday attracted more than 30 heads of state, pariahs to the west and leftist heroes — as well as celebrities including Sean Penn and Jesse Jackson.

The death of Chavez was announced on Tuesday by his Vice President and chosen heir Nicolas Maduro, visibly shaken as he stood flanked by ministers on state television. He was announcing news that most of Venezuela had expected, after Chavez’s three month absence following a fourth cancer operation.

“We have just received the most tragic and awful information,” Maduro said, clad in white. “Comandante, thank you so much on behalf of the people that you protected.”

Tens of thousands poured towards socialist landmarks in Caracas that evening, unsure of what was next. Outside the military hospital where Chavez spent his final two weeks, many stood stunned, their silence punctuated by motorbike horns.

I asked what they were feeling, hoping for, and many burst into tears.

Two days of laying in state followed at a military base in the south of Caracas. The government says two million supporters paid their respects. Nearly all were clad in red, clutching or dressed in some form of memorabilia.

It’s sometimes difficult to get across just how passionate Chavez’s supporters can be. Many don’t have a semi-critical appreciation of their head of state as is usual in western democracies, rather Chavez has managed to build up an almost religious following. He is a rock star president.

At rallies over the years, I’ve seen people screaming, chanting, fainting at the site of their Comandante. Even at the laying in state this week, a crushed crowd pushed and shoved its way through a bottleneck to see the president’s body.

That adulation for Chávez was echoed by certain world leaders. Bolivia’s President Evo Morales said tearfully that Chávez now was “more alive than ever,” referring to the leftist ideals that Morales and other Latin American presidents share.

Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, earlier this week, said that Chavez would one day rise, just as Christ had done. At the funeral, while lining up in the Guard of Honor, the outgoing leader tapped the casket containing Chavez’s body and clenched his fist in a revolutionary salute.

Politicians in the West, on the other hand, were not so forthcoming with their praise. “Good riddance to this dictator,” said U.S. Republican Ed Royce.

One of Chávez’s key policies was perpetual antagonism to the US. In 2006, he stood at the United Nations lectern and theatrically sniffed the air. “The devil came here yesterday,” he said, referring to George W Bush who had spoken the previous day. “It smells of sulfur still.”

It was that foreign policy that led to some unlikely allies such as Ahmadinejad, Muammer Gadafi of Libya and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.

Chavez’s body will now be embalmed and laid to rest in a glass case “for eternity,” said Maduro as he announced the news, mentioning parallels to “Ho Chi Minh, Lenin and Mao.”

“Forever, he will be there, always, with the people,” said Maduro.

Maduro looks likely to win forthcoming elections, basking in the momentum he has been given by Chavez’s anointment as well as the opposition’s fracture after October’s lost presidential election.

Maduro lacks the charisma that has allowed Chávez to remain so popular despite Venezuela having one of the world’s highest murder rates, soaring inflation and shortages of staple foods.

The question now is whether Maduro is able to keep up Chavismo without the man himself.

For World Report, this is Girish Gupta, in Carcas