Venezuelans on Wednesday began to say their long goodbyes to their President Hugo Chávez, who died the previous day following a long battle with cancer. Chávez’s body was carried in a flag-draped casket from the military hospital in a long procession through Caracas to the military academy where it will lie in state until Friday’s funeral.
The government, now headed by Chávez’s handpicked successor, Vice President Nicolás Maduro, has declared seven days of mourning.
The announcement of Chávez’s death took place only hours after Maduro had made a lengthy televised speech in which he ordered the expulsion of two US Embassy officials after accusing them of conspiring to destabilize the government by contacting Venezuelan military officers. The vice president also accused the United States of sabotaging Chávez’s health by provoking his cancer and announced an official inquiry.
Hundreds of thousands are expected to converge on the capital’s streets for the fiery leftist leader’s funeral. Bolivian President Evo Morales, Argentinean President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Uruguay’s José Mujica arrived in Caracas on Wednesday. More world leaders were expected to arrive throughout the week.
Supporters in shock
“What can I say? I am deeply saddened,” said one crying woman who stood among the multitudes outside the military hospital in Caracas waiting for the Venezuelan leader’s casket to leave for Wednesday’s long procession — the first of many goodbyes before his funeral on Friday.
“I came here to say goodbye to him, someone who has given so much to the poor people,” said 62-year-old Iris Dicuro.
Lucrecia Camejo, who came from Maracay, Aragua state, said while like many she had expected his death, she was happy that Hugo Chávez was no longer suffering. “I came here to say my final goodbyes but not in tears but being very happy, like the way he was,” she said.
Vice President Nicolás Maduro tried to soothe the tens of thousands of mourners who lined the streets of Caracas waiting for Chávez’s casket to go by. “Amid the immense pain of this historic tragedy that has affected our fatherland, we call on all compatriots to be vigilant for peace, love, respect and tranquility,” Maduro said. “We ask our people to channel this pain into peace.”
It was still not clear where the 58-year-old Chávez would be buried.
“Chávez’s funeral is going to rival Eva Perón’s,” said US-based Venezuela expert Daniel Hellinger, recalling Argentina’s first lady, who died at age 33 in 1952 at the height of her popularity.
On Tuesday night, Maduro, with his voice breaking, and flanked by government and military officials, announced Chávez’s demise.
‘‘At 4.25 this afternoon, our comandante and president passed away after battling hard with a sickness for almost two years, for the love of the people, with the blessings of the people and the loyalty of his comrades in arms.”
Seas of teary-eyed people wearing red raised their fists in a revolutionary gesture as they walked alongside a military honor guard carrying the coffin.
Chávez leaves a political vacuum and uncertainty in Venezuela, a nation that is divided between his supporters and those who are demanding change after his 14-year rule.
According to the Constitution, National Assembly speaker Diosdado Cabello should take over the presidency until elections are called within 30 days. But Foreign Minister Elías Jaua announced early Wednesday that Maduro would become interim president. The argument given was that Chávez could not be sworn in on January 10 so the vice president should stay in office.
Maduro, a former bus driver and union leader who rose through the ranks to become Chávez’s anointed successor, is expected to run in the elections, which could pit him against Miranda state governor and former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles. The 40-year-old Capriles lost to Chávez on October 7 by 11 percent — the narrowest margin ever between Chávez and an opponent during the past four elections.
Tensions between the two possible future contenders were heightened over the weekend when Maduro accused Capriles of conspiring against the government by secretly meeting with Chávez opponents and US government officials in Miami for a planned takeover.
Mocking the charges, Capriles posted on his Twitter account a photograph with his nephews. “Here are my two biggest co-conspirators,” he tweeted. “While I go to the United States to visit my nephews, you go to Cuba to receive orders from the Castro brothers and give away money that belongs to the Venezuelans. Traitors!”
After the news of Chávez’s death, however, Capriles asked for “unity for all Venezuelans” and expressed his condolences for the family.
Chávez’s illness and demise is still a well-guarded secret. After June 2011 he had four cancer operations in Cuba. On December 11 he gave an emotional farewell to Venezuelans as he boarded the plane that would take him to Havana for his last surgery. The people never saw their president again. He was secretly brought back to Caracas two weeks ago, supposedly to complete his recovery, but on Monday Information Minister Ernesto Villegas announced that Chávez was suffering from “a new, severe respiratory infection” and was in “delicate condition.”
Chávez died at age 58.