Venezuela bids emotional farewell to Chavez

CARACAS (AFP) - The flag-draped coffin of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez was borne through throngs of weeping supporters on Wednesday as a nation bade farewell to the firebrand leftist who led them for 14 years.

His mother Elena wept over his wooden casket as a band played the national anthem outside his military hospital. Presidential guards with red berets then placed his remains on a black hearse which took him to lie in state.

The commander's hand-picked successor, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, walked alongside the car, wearing a somber expression and the colors of the national flag, in what was in effect the first appearance in his election campaign.

He was accompanied the length of a more than six-hour route under baking sun by Bolivia's President Evo Morales, cheered by huge crowds.

Chavez's death after a two-year struggle with cancer was a blow to his supporters and to the alliance of left-wing Latin American powers, and plunged his resource-rich country into uncertainty as an election is organized.

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 body, surrounded by soldiers, was taken to the military academy that the former paratrooper colonel once called a second home, where he was to lie in state until an official ceremony with foreign dignitaries on Friday.

People watched from their apartment windows while others climbed fences to get a better view of the hearse. Many held or wore iconic images of Chavez.

The 58-year-old leader succumbed to a respiratory infection on Tuesday. A new election is due to be called within what are sure to be 30 tense days.

Maduro, who on Tuesday had tearfully broke the news to the nation that his mentor had lost his battle with cancer, was poised to take over as interim president and to campaign for election as Chavez's chosen successor.

The death brought thousands of Venezuelans to public squares across the country, weeping and celebrating the life of a divisive figure whose oil-funded socialist revolution delighted the poor and infuriated the wealthy.

Hundreds of people spent the night in front of his hospital, waving Venezuelan flags and chanting "we are all Chavez!" A banner was hung on the hospital fence, reading "Chavez lives, the battle continues!" "I love him," said Iris Dicuro, 62, who came from the northeastern city of Puerto La Cruz and wore a shirt with the words "Forward Comandante." "I want to bid farewell because he was a good man who gave everything to the poor." But, in a country divided by Chavez's populist style, not everyone agreed, 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.

"He did a lot of social things, but he could have done much more. He also did a lot of harm because there are no institutions, there is no justice. He mistreated everyone who disagreed with his government." Some of Chavez's closest Latin American allies had already arrived Wednesday ahead of the state funeral, including Argentina's President Cristina Kirchner, Uruguay's Jose Mujica and Bolivia's Evo Morales.

Maduro said the nation's security forces had been deployed but Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said calm reigned in Venezuela, which was rocked by a short-lived coup against Chavez in 2002.

Venezuela's closest ally, Cuba, declared its own three-day mourning period and dubbed Chavez a "true son" of revolutionary icon Fidel Castro. Eight other Latin American countries followed suit.

But US President Barack Obama - once branded a "poor ignorant person" by Chavez - was circumspect, pledging American support for the "Venezuelan people" while expressing the hope that relations might now improve.

Shortly before Chavez's death was announced, Maduro expelled two US military attaches and accused Venezuela's enemies of somehow afflicting the leftist with the cancer that eventually killed him.

Chavez was showered with tributes from Latin American leaders and Russia, China and Iran also paid tribute to a man who had cultivated close ties with the bugbears of the West as a way of thumbing his nose at Washington.

And beleaguered Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad took time off from trying to crush a revolt against his brutal rule to dub Chavez's death "a great loss for me personally and the Syrian people." Chavez had checked into the hospital on February 18 for a course of chemotherapy after spending two months in Cuba, where in December he had undergone his fourth round of cancer surgery since June 2011.

A new election could offer another shot at the presidency to Henrique Capriles, the opposition leader who lost to Chavez in October but insisted Tuesday that the two men were "adversaries, but never enemies." Luis Vicente Leon, director of the polling group Datanalisis, said the government will likely want to hold elections as early as possible "to take advantage electorally of the emotion generated by the president's death." Chavez died five months after winning re-election, overcoming public frustration over a rising murder rate, regular blackouts and soaring inflation.

He missed his swearing-in for a new six-year term on January 10, but the Supreme Court approved an indefinite delay.

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