CARACAS, Venezuela – By the hundreds of thousands, Hugo Chavez’s tearful supporters carried their dead president through streets still plastered with his smiling image, an epic farewell to a larger-than-life leader remembered simply as “our commander.”
In a display of raw and at times unruly emotion, generations of Venezuelans, many dressed in the red of Chavez’s socialist party, filled Caracas’ streets Wednesday to remember the man who dominated their country for 14 years before succumbing to cancer.
Chavez’s flag-draped casket floated over hundreds of thousands of supporters as it made its way atop an open hearse on a seven-hour journey to a military academy in the capital, where it will lie in state. Mourners, many of them weeping, lined the streets or walked with the casket, which followed the lead of a grim drum major dressed in Chavez’s trademark red.
Mourners shouted out “nuestro comandante” – “our commander,” in English – as the casket passed.
But even amid the mass outpouring of grief, questions about the country’s future could not be put off for long, with worries amplified by the government’s lack of regard for the letter of the constitution, and the military’s eagerness to choose political sides.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro, the late president’s hand-picked successor, and Bolivian President Evo Morales, one of his staunchest allies, mingled with the crowd, at one point falling to the ground in the jostle of bodies pushing in every direction. Military officers and Cabinet members ringed the president’s casket, stone-faced with grief.
Other mourners pumped their fists and held aloft images of the late president, amid countless waving yellow, blue and red Venezuelan flags.
“The fight goes on! Chavez lives!” the mourners shouted in unison, many through eyes red from crying late into the night.
Chavez’s bereaved mother, Elena Frias de Chavez, leaned against her son’s casket, while a priest read a prayer before the procession left the military hospital where Chavez died Tuesday at age 58. His funeral is scheduled for Friday.
“I feel so much pain. So much pain,” said Yamile Gil, a 38-year-old housewife. “We never wanted to see our president like this. We will always love him.”
Others who bitterly opposed Chavez’s take-no-prisoners brand of socialism said they were sorry about his death, but hopeful it would usher in a less confrontational, more business-friendly era in this major oil-producing country. Under his leadership, the state expropriated key industries, raised taxes on the rich and forced many opponents into exile.
“I am not happy that he has died, but I can’t be sad either,” said Delia Ramirez, 32. “This man sowed hatred and division among Venezuelans.”
In Washington, senior Obama administration officials said they hoped to rebuild the U.S.-Venezuelan relationship in the wake of Chavez’s death, but acknowledged that sudden rapprochement was unlikely given the Latin American country’s upcoming presidential election.
The officials said the most important steps for Venezuela right now are maintaining security and ensuring free and fair elections for a new leader.