Mile-long line of Venezuelans file past coffin of President Chavez

CARACAS, Venezuela – They filed past all night and into the morning, a line of mourners a mile (more than a kilometre) long hoping for one final glimpse of Hugo Chavez. The multitudes wept and crossed themselves as they reached the president’s coffin Thursday, united in grief and admiration for a man many considered a father figure, even as Venezuela remains deeply divided over the future.

Cannon boomed a salute each hour, the only interruption to what seemed an endless procession as tens of thousands filed past, with countless more still to come.

“I waited 10 hours to see him, but I am very happy, proud to have seen my comandante,” said 46-year-old Yudeth Hurtado, sobbing. “He is planted in our heart.”

In a nod to the insecurity that plagues this country, mourners had to submit to a pat down, pass through a metal detector and remove the batteries from their mobile phones upon entering the military academy where Chavez is lying in state until his funeral Friday.

Several Latin American leaders have already arrived for the funeral, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that he will attend. Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said Thursday that 54 countries were sending delegations, including 22 heads of state.

It was still unclear where Chavez will be buried. National Assembly speaker Diosdado Cabello said via Twitter late Wednesday that the president should be laid to rest at the National Pantheon, alongside the remains of 19th century independence hero Simon Bolivar. But Rafael Riera, secretary general of an opposition party in Chavez’s native Barinas state, told The Associated Press that the late leader’s family had requested he be buried there, next to his grandmother.

Officials also had yet to say when an election to replace Chavez will be held. The constitution says it must be called within 30 days of the president’s March 5 death.

With mourners filing by, Jaua said the constitution would be followed and notably continued to refer to Chavez’s anointed successor, Nicolas Maduro, as “vice-president” although he had previously been identified as acting president.

The foreign minister also struck the defiant, us-against-the-world tone the government has projected since Chavez died, which some critics fear could incite passions in a country that remains on edge.

“They couldn’t defeat him electorally, they couldn’t assassinate him, they couldn’t beat him militarily,” Jaua declared. “Chavez died as president … Chavez died the leader of his people.”

At the military academy, Chavez lay in a glass-covered coffin wearing his olive-green military uniform and red beret.

As they reached the coffin, many placed a hand on their heart or saluted. Some held up children so they could see Chavez’s face.

Ricardo Tria, a social worker, said he waited nearly four hours to pass by the casket. Chavez looked “asleep, quiet, serious,” he said.

As a band played the anthem of his first battalion, Chavez’s coffin was displayed at the academy after an emotion-drenched procession through Caracas on Wednesday. Generations of Venezuelans, many dressed in the red of Chavez’s socialist party, filled the capital’s streets to remember the man who dominated their country for 14 years before succumbing Tuesday afternoon to cancer.

The coffin was carried through the crowds atop an open hearse on an eight-kilometre (five-mile) journey that wound through the city’s north and southeast, into many of the poorer neighbourhoods where Chavez drew his political strength.

At the academy, Chavez’s family and close advisers, as well as the presidents of Argentina, Bolivia and Uruguay, attended a funeral Mass around the casket.

The head of Venezuela’s presidential guard, Gen. Jose Ornella, told The Associated Press late Wednesday that Chavez died of a massive heart attack after great suffering.

“He couldn’t speak but he said it with his lips … ‘I don’t want to die. Please don’t let me die,’ because he loved his country, he sacrificed himself for his country,” said Ornella, who said he was with the socialist president at the moment of his death Tuesday.

While much of this country was immersed in collective grief, millions who bitterly opposed Chavez’s take-no-prisoners brand of socialism were staying away from the mourning crowds, quietly hoping Chavez’s death would usher in a less confrontational, more business-friendly era in this major oil-producing country.

Opponents already have been stepping up criticism of the government’s questionable moves after Chavez’s death, including naming Maduro as acting president. The 1999 constitution that Chavez himself pushed through seems to clearly state that the speaker of the National Assembly, in this case Cabello, should become interim president.

But Cabello doesn’t appear interested in challenging the move, at least publically, and the military has also lined up in support of Maduro. The Defence Minister, Adm. Diego Molero, has even pledged military support for Maduro’s candidacy against likely opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, raising concern among critics about the fairness of the vote.

Capriles, the 40-year-old governor of Miranda state who lost to Chavez in October, has stayed largely out of the public eye, though he was conciliatory in a televised address after the president’s death.

Other opposition leaders were more critical of the military stance.

Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, executive secretary of the opposition coalition, called the defence minister’s declarations “unacceptable” as well as “false, unconstitutional.”

Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American Program at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said Maduro would likely win the upcoming presidential vote, even if he won’t be able to harness Chavez’s charisma.

“There’s really no one who can step into those shoes,” she said.


Associated Press writers Christopher Toothaker, Jorge Rueda and Fabiola Sanchez in Caracas contributed to this report.


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