World leaders attend Chávez funeral as crowds mourn 'visionary revolutionary'

Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad standing next to the coffin of Hugo Chávez.

Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad standing next to the coffin of Hugo Chávez.

Sat, Mar 9, 2013, 00:00

The state funeral of Hugo Chávez was held in Caracas yesterday in a ceremony that sought to cement the image of the Venezuelan president as a visionary revolutionary of global importance.

Gathered in the chapel of Caracas’s military academy, the mourners were led by Mr Chávez’s visibly distraught mother Elena and Nicolás Maduro, his vice-president and heir-presumptive, who gave an impassioned funeral oration laden with religious imagery.

His voice cracking with emotion, he described Mr Chávez as “the true son of Christ . . . He is alive for ever, for this time and for all time.”

More than 30 heads of state and government attended, including most Latin American leaders. Mr Chávez, who died on Tuesday from cancer, was once widely seen as the region’s leader but the increasingly evident signs of his economic mismanagement at home along with his own declining health saw his influence recede in recent years.

Absences

A noticeable absence was Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff. She had travelled to Caracas for the lying in state of Mr Chávez’s remains but did not stay for the funeral. Also missing was Argentina’s president Cristina Kirchner, one of the first leaders to arrive for the lying in state but who returned home before the funeral on medical advice.

Seated in the front row yesterday was Raúl Castro, president of Mr Chávez’s closest ally Cuba, which marked the occasion with a 21-gun salute in Havana.

The most applauded foreign leader during the ceremony was Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who worked with Mr Chávez to revive the Opec oil cartel. He kissed the coffin after forming an honour guard with Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko, who appeared to wipe away tears during the ceremony, during which his young son sat on his lap.

There were frequent shouts of “Viva Chávez!” and at one stage mourners started chanting “Chávez did not die, he multiplied.” Participating in the religious part of proceedings was US civil rights leader Rev Jessie Jackson, who prayed for an end to the “breach” between Venezuela and the United States.

Big crowds

Thronging the region around the military academy was a huge crowd of Chávez supporters, many overcome by the emotion of the occasion, others chanting slogans promising to continue his Bolivarian Revolution. Many were dressed in red, the colour of Mr Chávez’s movement. One man clutched a copy of the country’s 1999 constitution, telling a local television station: “This is the marvel that Chávez left us. It is a second bible.” Other parts of the usually chaotic city were deserted, with business closed as a mark of respect.

Mr Maduro announced on Thursday that after the funeral Mr Chávez’s remains would lie in state for at least another week so Venezuelans would have the chance to pay their respects. He would then be embalmed and placed on permanent view “so our people can have him forever”.

Mr Chávez would thus join a select group of former leaders whose embalmed remains are on display – communist leaders Lenin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh and the two Kims of North Korea, along with former dictator of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos.

Head of the national assembly Diosdado Cabello said legislators would look at amending the country’s constitution to allow Mr Chávez’s remains enter the country’s national pantheon immediately. Currently “illustrious” Venezuelans are considered for such an honour 25 years after their death.

Among those buried there is Mr Chávez’s greatest hero, South American liberator Simón Bolívar, after whom he named his revolution. During the funeral Mr Maduro placed a replica of Bolívar’s sword on the coffin.

Mr Maduro was due to be sworn in as interim president last night. According to the constitution the role should be filled by Mr Cabello. But he personally announced Mr Maduro’s swearing-in, “carrying out the wishes of Comandante Chávez”.

New elections

In his last televised address in December, Mr Chávez said if he was unable to resume power his supporters were to vote for Mr Maduro, a former union leader. Mr Cabello said new elections would be held within 30 days, in accordance with the constitution.

Henrique Capriles, the leader of the opposition, denounced as “constitutional fraud” a ruling announced by the country’s supreme court just before the funeral that Mr Maduro could stand for the presidency despite a constitutional ban.