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 coffin 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 coffin 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 coffin, 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, a 32-year-old accountant who stayed away from the procession. “This man sowed hatred and division among Venezuelans.”
Even as Chavistas said their goodbyes, a sense of foreboding gripped the country as it awaited word on what might come next. Many Venezuelans, fearful of possible violence, stocked up on food and fuel as the country pondered whether the former paratrooper’s socialist agenda would survive him, and for how long.
The 1999 constitution that Chavez himself pushed through mandates that elections be called within 30 days, but Chavez’s top lieutenants have not always stuck to the letter of the law.
The charter clearly states that the speaker of the National Assembly, in this case Diosdado Cabello, should become interim president if a head of state is forced to leave office within three years of his election. Chavez was re-elected only in October.
But Chavez anointed Maduro for that role, and the vice president has assumed the mantle even as the government announced he would represent the ruling socialist party in the presidential vote.
Some took to Twitter to denounce the move, citing Article 233 of the constitution, which establishes Cabello as the rightful president.
The military also appears to be showing firm support for Maduro, despite a constitutional mandate that it play no role in politics. In a late-night tweet, Venezuelan state television said Defense Minister Adm. Diego Molero had 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, was conciliatory in a televised address Tuesday.
“This is not the moment to highlight what separates us,” Capriles said. “This is not the hour for differences; it is the hour for union, it is the hour for peace.”
Other opposition leaders were more critical of the military stance.
“When all Venezuela wants unity and peace, and a climate of respect between Venezuelans predominates, they’re contrasted by what’s unacceptable, the declarations of the minister of defense, that are, besides false, unconstitutional,” said Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, executive secretary of the opposition coalition.
If elected, Maduro would still face a stiff challenge replacing the ultra-charismatic Chavez, who parlayed a folksy nationalism and stiff resolve into a virtual one-man government, maintaining support among the poor despite food shortages, rampant crime and inflation topping 20 percent.
Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American Program at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said Maduro won’t be able to harness “Chavismo” as Chavez did so successfully, but she expects him to win any upcoming presidential vote.
“There’s really no one who can step into those shoes,” she said.
The next administration must also control a ballooning public debt that has quadrupled to $102 billion since Chavez took office in 1999, despite Venezuela’s booming oil exports
Maduro’s Jeckle-and-Hyde-like behavior Tuesday has stoked worries about a future government.
He used a speech just before Chavez’s death to lash out at the United States and internal opponents he accused of plotting to destabilize the government. He pointed to shadowy forces as being behind the president’s cancer and expelled two American military attaches he charged with spying.
In a speech later announcing the death, a shaken and somber Maduro called for peace, love and reconciliation among all Venezuelans.
Many mourners at Wednesday’s procession took their cue from the more virulent Maduro speech, venting anger at Washington and accusing Venezuela’s opposition of conspiring with far-right U.S. forces to undermine the revolution.
“The government of the United States is not going to rest,” said Oscar Navas, a 33-year-old fruit vendor and Chavez supporter who joined the procession. “It’s going to continue conspiring against our revolution because we are anti-imperialists. I don’t have the slightest doubt the CIA is here, undercover, doing whatever it can to destabilize our country.”
Venezuela and the United States have a complicated relationship, with Chavez’s enemy to the north remaining the top buyer of Venezuelan oil. But Chavez’s inner circle has long claimed the United States was behind a failed 2002 attempt to overthrow him, and he has frequently used anti-American rhetoric to stir up support. Venezuela has been without a U.S. ambassador since July 2010 and expelled a U.S. military officer in 2006.
In Washington, senior Obama administration officials said Wednesday 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, but they had no specific concerns about the security of American officials or U.S. citizens in Venezuela. They described talks with Venezuela’s police and military as going well.
Still, they expressed displeasure with the expulsion of two U.S. military officials in Venezuela and Maduro’s accusations that the U.S. was somehow responsible for Chavez’s cancer.
“Yesterday’s first press conference was not encouraging,” a senior official said. “It disappointed us.”
She and the other officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
The U.S. is still reviewing whether to take reciprocal action for the expulsion of the American attaches, the officials said.
Associated Press writers Christopher Toothaker, Jorge Rueda and Fabiola Sanchez in Caracas and Bradley Klapper in Salt Lake City, Utah, contributed to this report.
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