Venezuela mourns El Presidente


Deceased Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez was hailed by weeping supporters today as a spiritual father figure who sacrificed his life for his country.

The 58-year-old socialist president succumbed to cancer yesterday after 14 years in power that polarised a country with vast oil reserves by side-lining traditional elites in favour of millions mired in poverty.

Today Chávez's body was transferred to a military academy where it will lie in state until his official funeral on Friday. Seven days of mourning will also be observed.

Marchers strained to see or even touch Chavez's coffin as it wound its way through crowded streets.

Supporters say Chavez, a larger-than-life persona in Venezuela, helped them throw off the shackles of capitalism and foreign interference, and that he fell ill because he devoted all his energy to a peaceful "revolution."

"He was like a father to us. He taught us how to love our country, our culture and our sovereignty," said Madeleine Gutierrez (29), an architect. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she hugged friends in a plaza named for Chavez's hero Simón Bolívar, who liberated much of Latin America from Spanish colonial rule.

"Chavez lives! The fight goes on!" people chanted. Clad in red, the color of the Socialist Party, they thronged the balmy streets of Caracas, creating rivers of crimson in homage to the departed president.

Bands of motorcyclists honked their horns in impromptu motorcades.

Critics say Chavez squandered the wealth from an oil price bonanza by spending too much on inefficient social welfare programs, lost control of inflation, allowed violent crime to surge and insulted US and European leaders for sport.

But with his African and indigenous heritage, Chavez was the face of the masses in the South American country who say their needs were ignored for decades by lighter-skinned rulers until he arrived.

"He gave his life for us. You could call him a martyr," said Jose Rondon (48) wearing a beret like one used by Chavez, at the hospital where the president died.

Rondon works for a union group affiliated with the Chavez government and, like many of the people on the streets interviewed, has ties to his party.

Still, today's outpouring looked far more spontaneous than normal pro-government events, where party cadres marshal turnout. It was on a scale rarely seen anywhere for an elected official.

Many supporters channeled their grief into raucous shouts of support and militant vows to continue his policies. Some, though, stood silently or cried.

"Everyone has benefited under Chavez. He included everybody. Like him or not, all have benefited," said Marixa Carrion, who works as a secretary at the foreign ministry.

Chavez's personality cult at times bore religious overtones. People were already comparing him today to former Argentine leader Eva Peron, who is cherished in her country half a century after her death.

Hundreds of posters of a smiling Chavez catching raindrops in his hand hang from lampposts across Caracas. The posters are emblazoned with a slogan that alludes to him as a creator: "Life rains down from your hands. We love you."

In contrast with the euphoria on the street, some of Chavez's detractors were quietly celebrating his demise. Though opposition supporters were largely staying indoors, some posted messages on Twitter toasting the end of the Chavez era.

Many Venezuelans saw Chavez's nationalistic streak as an example they must strive to live up to.

"I love Chavez and will continue loving him," said Hugo Bolivar, 60, who works as a security guard for the city of Caracas. "I have Bolívar's last name and the president's first name. He cared a lot about his country - just like me."

Many people carried banners reading "I am Chavez" and waved red, yellow and blue Venezuelan flags.

At various points, recordings of Chavez singing songs or making impassioned speeches blared through loudspeakers, reducing many to tears.

Chavez's imprint may endure for years. His preferred successor, acting president Nicolas Maduro, is favored to win an election that is expected to be called in the next 30 days.

Fans of Chavez hope that Mr Maduro, who for now lacks the charisma and zeal of his former boss, could grow into his new role.

Mr Maduro was surrounded by a sea of people today as he walked with Chavez's coffin toward a monumental esplanade among probably one of the largest crowds of his political life.

"Charisma is like a seed that you must plant to harvest later. Chavez wasn't all that charismatic when he started out. Maduro could learn by doing," said Manuel Montanez (48).

Mr Maduro, a 50-year-old former bus driver and union leader, will be the government's candidate at a new presidential election that is likely to pit him against opposition leader and state governor Henrique Capriles.

The authorities said a new vote would be called within 30 days, but it was not immediately clear if that meant the election would be held within 30 days - or whether the date for the ballot would be announced within 30 days.

Just a few hours before announcing Chávez’s death, Mr Maduro made a virulent speech against enemies he claimed were trying to undermine Venezuelan democracy.

And he said two US military attaches had been expelled for trying to destabilise the nation. Maduro alleged that "imperialist" enemies had infected the president with cancer as one of a number of conspiracies with domestic opponents.

The government declared seven days of mourning and closed all schools and universities until next Monday.

Messages of condolences for Mr Chávez's death came from around the world, ranging from film-maker Oliver Stone to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and US president Barack Obama.

Mr Obama said his administration was interested in "developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government."

Iran today declared a day of national mourning today after the death of Mr Chávez, who shared the Islamic Republic's loathing for US "imperialism".

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who had forged a public friendship with Chávez characterised by lavish mutual praise, hugs and light-hearted moments, may attend Chavez's funeral on Friday, state news agency IRNA reported.

"Hugo Chávez is a name known to all nations. His name is a reminder of cleanliness and kindness, bravery ... dedication and tireless efforts to serve the people, especially the poor and those scarred by colonialism and imperialism," Mr Ahmadinejad said.

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