By Laurent Thomet | AFP
CARACAS, Venezuela – The flag-draped coffin of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez 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 top of a black hearse, surrounded by flowers.
Chávez’ death after a two-year struggle with cancer was a blow to his adoring supporters and the alliance of left-wing Latin American powers, and plunged his oil-rich country into uncertainty as an election is organized.
His body, surrounded by soldiers, was taken to the military academy that the former paratrooper colonel once called a second home, where he will lie in state until an official ceremony with foreign dignitaries on Friday.
People watched from their apartment windows, others climbed fences to get a better view of the hearse, many held or wore iconic images of Chávez.
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.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro, who 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 campaign as Chávez’s chosen successor.
The death brought thousands of Venezuelans to public squares across the nation, 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 Chávez!” A banner was hung on the hospital fence, reading “Chávez 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,” she said.
The armed forces were to fire a 21-gun salute and “there will be a salvo every hour until his burial,” Defense Minister Diego Molero said.
Some of Chávez’s closest 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 Chávez in 2002.
Venezuela’s closest ally, communist Cuba, declared its own mourning period for a leader who helped prop up the island’s economy with cheap fuel and cash transfers, and dubbed Chávez a “true son” of revolutionary icon Fidel Castro.
But U.S. President Barack Obama – often a target of Chávez’s anti-American scorn – was circumspect, pledging the United States would support the “Venezuelan people” and describing Chávez’s passing as a “challenging time.”
Shortly before Chávez’s death was announced, Maduro expelled two U.S. military attachés and accused Venezuela’s enemies of somehow afflicting the leftist with the cancer that eventually killed him.
Chávez 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.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Chávez had fallen “martyr” to a “suspect illness,” while hailing his close ally for “serving the people of Venezuela and defending human and revolutionary values.”
Chávez had checked into the hospital on Feb. 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.
The once ubiquitous presence on state television and radio disappeared from public view after he was flown to Cuba on Dec. 10, an unprecedented absence that fueled wave after wave of rumors.
A new election could offer another shot at the presidency to Henrique Capriles, the opposition leader who lost to Chávez in October but insisted Tuesday that the two men were “adversaries, but never enemies.”
Luis Vicente León, 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.”
Chávez will be mourned by many of the country’s once-neglected poor, who revered the self-styled revolutionary for using the country’s oil riches to fund popular housing, health, food and education programs.
And like-minded Latin American leaders like Cuba’s Raúl Castro, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega lost a close friend who used his diplomatic muscle and cheap oil to shore up their rule.
Chávez died five months after winning re-election, overcoming public frustration over a rising murder rate, regular blackouts and soaring inflation.
The opposition had accused Chávez of misusing public funds for his campaign and dominating the airwaves while forcing government workers to attend rallies through intimidation.
He missed his swearing-in for a new six-year term on Jan. 10, but the Supreme Court approved an indefinite delay.