Hugo Chávez divides Venezuela in death as in life amid fears of violence

| Mar. 6, 2013 | Caracas, Venezuela

Published by The Telegraph

Girish Gupta and David Blair

Hugo Chávez polarised Venezuela even in death on Wednesday as, outside the military hospital in Caracas where he spent his last days, the late president's supporters sobbed while in the capital's wealthier streets, some admitted they feared an outbreak of violence.

Mr Chávez, who ran Venezuela for more than 14 controversial years, died last night after a long battle with cancer. Venezuela has declared seven days of mourning, with at least ten heads of state expected to attend the elaborate funeral on Friday.

Vanessa Pinosa, a 39-year-old seamstress holding vigil outside the military hospital in Caracas, said: "I was with him when he won the presidency. I was him at the start and I'm here with him at the end."

Referring to Nicolas Maduro, the new interim president and a veteran "Chavista", she added: "We've got to continue this revolution, through Maduro. It's Chavez's order. We're not going to go back to what we had."

Mr Maduro will run for president in new elections that must be held within 30 days. His opponent will probably be Henrique Capriles, the opposition leader, who was defeated by Mr Chavez in the last election in October.

"This is not the moment to highlight what separates us," said Mr Capriles in a televised address. "This is not the hour for differences; it is the hour for union, it is the hour for peace."

Some in the middle class fear that Mr Chavez's distraught supporters will become violent. The wealthier streets of Caracas were deserted on Wednesday, with only a handful of cars on roads that are often gridlocked.

Restaurants and bars closed before their peak hours.

Most shops locked their doors as the news of Mr Chavez's death spread, fearing looting. There were several reports of violent incidents breaking out.

Mr Chavez's international allies were quick to pay effusive tribute overnight.

Iran declared a day of mourning for a man described by President Mahmoud Ahamdinejad as a "brave, strong son" and a "wise and revolutionary leader".
Mr Ahmadinejad believes that the "12th Imam", a pivotal figure in Shia Islam, will return to Earth alongside Jesus Christ and usher in a perfect era of justice.

When this happens, Mr Ahmadinejad predicted that Chavez would also be resurrected. "I have no doubt that he will return, along with the righteous Jesus and the perfect human," said Iran's president.

In Syria, the regime praised Mr Chavez for his "honourable" position in support of President Bashar al-Assad. The late president had "stood on the side of the Arabs' legitimate rights," said the official news agency in Damascus, adding that Mr Chavez had opposed the "conspiracy against Syria".

Meanwhile, President Evo Morales of Bolivia, another ally of the late leader, said that through his ideals "Chávez is more alive now than ever".

President Vladimir Putin of Russia, whose country sold Venezuela billions of dollars worth of weapons, hailed an "uncommon and strong man who looked into the future and always set the highest target for himself".

The United Nations Human Rights Council, now chaired by Cuba, held a minute's silence in tribute to Mr Chavez. Its Cuban chairman said: "On behalf of the Latin American and Caribbean states, we wish to express our deep solidarity with the people and government of Venezuela."

However, Human Rights Watch said that Mr Chavez's presidency was "characterised by a dramatic concentration of power and open disregard for basic human rights". The body added that Mr Chavez's government would routinely "intimidate, censor and prosecute Venezuelans who criticised the president".