Chavez funeral kicks off 'eternity' of farewells

| Mar. 8, 2013 | Caracas, Venezuela

Published by GlobalPost

Updated as the funeral went on.

Many salute, some cross their hearts, and others wail uncontrollably, flinging their arms over the casket, drawing guards who rush to restrain them.

Since the news of Hugo Chavez's death Tuesday, more than 2 million people have paid their respects to the late strongman lying in state at a Caracas military base, the government said.

The official funeral for Chavez took place Friday, drawing a sea of Venezuelan supporters and dozens of foreign heads of state. They included some highly controversial allies of the late strongmen.

Many Venezuelans in the crowd cheered as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Cuba's Raul Castro participated in the ceremonial honor guard. However, when Spanish Crown Prince Felipe appeared, they booed.

But after Friday's funeral, the farewells to Chavez will probably continue much longer.

With passions for Chavez soaring, the acting president, Nicolas Maduro, said Thursday the government is extending the national period of mourning another week.

More remarkable perhaps, Maduro added that, "like Ho Chi Minh, Lenin and Mao Zedong," Chavez's body will be embalmed and placed in a glass case "for eternity."

“Forever, he will be there, always, with the people,” said Maduro, whom Chavez had tapped to succeed him before his final flight to Cuba for cancer treatment in December.

“I’m sad and joyful at the same time,” said Juan Silva, 63, a pensioner who watched the funeral on giant video screens erected at the military academy. “I’m sad because we lost a great world leader. I’m so happy that we’re all here and wil be able to see him forever, embalmed in the glass case.”

A teary-eyed Maduro on Tuesday announced the death of the man who'd governed Venezuela for 14 years, rousing intense adoration and raw hatred alike, in his country and abroad.

On Thursday, the grounds of the Fuerte Tiuna military base in south Caracas swarmed with supporters, squeezing at chaotic bottlenecks into the main building.

While heart-wrenching grief was palpable, some scenes at the site stirred an almost festival-like atmosphere. Vendors were selling Chavez memorabilia and crowds were chanting, “Long live Chavez! The struggle continues!”

There were, of course, heavy sobs as well. “He’s the only president who has given us, the poor, dignity, ” said Ana Maria Colmenares, 55, weeping, donning a Chavez T-shirt and clutching a doll of the leader. She had just filed past El Comandante’s body after waiting nearly seven hours.

“Of course it’s worth the wait,” she said. “God has taken him to the heavens... They’ll never forget El Comandante Chavez, in every house, in every mission,” she added. The missions she was referring to are the abundant social projects that Chavez put in place with financing from Venezuela's vast oil bounty, the world's largest.

“With our knees on the ground, we are all with Chavez.”

As mourners filed past, soldiers rushed them along to keep up with the huge demand. There were short pauses, however, as officers lifted up small children to catch a glimpse of El Comandante. The corpse's bust was showing through the glass top of a basic wooden coffin, with the coffin's covered lower section draped in the Venezuelan flag.

Outside, soldiers threw bottles of water to the crowd who pushed and shoved for access to the building as if at the front of a concert. Many were clad in the socialist red that has colored Chavez’s tenure — his "Bolivarian Revolution." Nearly everyone had some form of memorabilia, such as hats, T-shirts, earrings or even Action Man-style dolls.

“Long live Chavez!” people shouted. “The struggle continues!” That slogan has taken the internet by storm as well, with Venezuelan state media promoting the Twitter hashtag #ChavezViveLaLuchaSigue.

That fight will be led by Maduro. The 50-year-old former bus driver and union leader is widely expected to win elections, which must be called within 30 days of Chavez being unable to govern. Chavez, who was 58, had handily won re-election in October but was too ill — and out of sight in a Havana hospital bed — to attend his own swearing-in.

“Of course I’ll vote for Maduro,” said Eric Garcia, 32, a lawyer crushed in the crowd waiting to see Chavez’s body. “Because Chavez chose him and he’s demonstrated that he is dedicated to the people.”

Piedro Vinci, 59, was holding a photo of Chavez and copy of Venezuela’s constitution, which Chavez rewrote when he came to power. “Chavez is the most powerful, most dignified person to have led this country in our 200 years [since Venezuela became independent]," Vinci said. "He freed us; he made us economically independent. Our children have a future. Of course I’ll vote for Maduro.”

Two days after announcing Chavez's death in a somber televised address, Maduro revealed plans for the funeral that's expected to rival that of Eva "Evita" Peron.

“This is going to be great for the government,” said Luis Vicente Leon, a Caracas-based political pollster. “They all want to be part of it, share in the excitement, the money, the power and the momentum.”

That momentum is helping drive expectations Maduro will win an election, buoyed not by his own background or campaigning, but his anointing by the very father of Venezuela's leftist Chavismo.

“It’s Chavismo time,” Leon added.

It’s also anti-Chavismo time. In Miami, home of many Venezuelan self-exiles, the news of Chavez's death set off joyous champagne-swigging parties, according to pictures published by the Miami Herald.

Still, Chavez had a great many friends. The funeral's attendees include fellow leftist Latin American leaders such as Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Uruguay’s Jose Mujica, but also some right-wing ones. Some reports said as many as 55 world leaders could be attending.

Ahmadinejad's cozy connection to Chavez didn't just rub Washington the wrong way.

In an open letter this week, Ahmadinejad wrote that Chavez would one day rise, “with Jesus Christ … to bring peace, justice and perfection to all,” prompting criticism from some of Iran's top clerics.

Yet many Venezuelans are saying their longtime leader still lives on.

Crying waiting in the queue to see Chavez’s body, Marina Castillo, 59, said: “Chavez is alive in my heart.”