CARACAS/WASHINGTON: The flag-draped coffin of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez was born through throngs of weeping supporters 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.
Chavez’s hand-picked successor, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, walked alongside the car through dense crowds, wearing a somber expression and a striking outfit in the color of the national flag.
Chavez’ 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 being 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 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 Chavez.
The 58-year-old leader succumbed to a respiratory infection Tuesday. A new election is due to be called within what are sure to be 30 tense days.
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 to campaign for election as Chavez’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 Chavez!” A banner was hung on the hospital fence, reading “Chavez lives, the battle continues!”
But not everyone in a country divided by Chavez’s populist style agreed.
“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.”
The armed forces fired a 21-gun salute and “there will be a salvo every hour until his burial,” Defense Minister Diego Molero said. Some of Chavez’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.
Venezuela’s closest ally, communist Cuba, declared its own mourning period, and dubbed Chavez a “true son” of revolutionary icon Fidel Castro.
But U.S. President Barack Obama – often a target of Chavez’s anti-American scorn – was circumspect, pledging the United States would support the “Venezuelan people” and describing Chavez’s passing as a “challenging time.”
Shortly before Chavez’s death was announced, Maduro expelled two U.S. military attaches and accused Venezuela’s enemies of somehow afflicting the leftist with the cancer that eventually killed him, a claim the U.S. swiftly rejected saying it was “absurd” to assert Washington was behind Chavez’s cancer.
A U.S. official, who did not want to be identified, said that the United States would be expected to send a delegation to Chavez’s funeral, which will be held on Friday, in a move that could send a conciliatory message to Venezuela.
Chavez was showered with tributes from Latin American leaders, Russia, China and Iran. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Chavez had fallen “martyr” to a “suspect illness,” while hailing his close ally for “serving the people of Venezuela and defending human and revolutionary values.”
And beleaguered Syrian strongman Bashar Assad took time off from attempting to crush a revolt against his brutal rule to dub Chavez’s death “a great loss for me personally and the Syrian people.”