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Thousands mourn as Chavez funeral procession begins

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2013-03-06

The funeral procession for deceased Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez began in the streets of Caracas on Wednesday, where mourners gathered en masse to pay last respects. Chavez died on Tuesday aged 58 after a long battle with cancer.

Devastated supporters of deceased Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez paraded his coffin through the streets of Caracas on Wednesday in a flood of emotion that allies hope will help his deputy win a coming election and keep the Chavez revolution alive.

'Genuine sadness, people are suffering'

Tens of thousands of “Chavistas” marched behind the remains of the flamboyant firebrand Socialist, draped in Venezuela’s blue, red and yellow national flag, and the government declared seven days of mourning.

Ending one of Latin America’s most remarkable populist rules, Chavez died on Tuesday at 58 after a two-year battle with cancer that was first detected in his pelvis. His body will be taken to a military academy on Wednesday to lie in state for three days.

Mourning a ‘powerful connection’ with the masses

According to Venezuela specialist George Ciccariella-Maher interviewed by FRANCE 24, the depth and scope of many Venezuelans’ grief cannot be underestimated.
“No matter what we may individually think of Hugo Chavez, the reality is he was a massively popular political leader,” he said. “[He was] someone who was able to generate a powerful, charismatic connection with the Venezuelan masses.”

As for the future of Chavez’s leftist policies, which won him the adoration of poor Venezuelans but infuriated opponents who denounced him as a dictator, much depends on Vice President Nicolas Maduro, the man he tapped to succeed him.

Maduro, a 50-year-old former bus driver and union leader, will probably face Henrique Capriles, governor of Miranda state, in the next election in the OPEC nation with the world’s largest oil reserves.

The stakes are huge for the region, given the crucial economic aid and cheap fuel the Chavez government supplied to allies across Latin America and the Caribbean.

Authorities said the vote would be called within 30 days, as stipulated by the constitution, but did not specify the date.

Madura’s challenge: uniting Chavez’s coalition

One recent opinion poll gave Maduro a strong lead over Capriles, in part because he has received Chavez’s blessing as his heir apparent, and he is likely to benefit from the surge of emotion following the president’s death.

The tall, mustachioed Maduro had long been a close ally of Chavez. He immediately pledged to continue his legacy and is unlikely to make major policy changes soon.

Maduro will now focus on marshalling support from Chavez’s diverse coalition, which includes leftist ideologues, business leaders and radical armed groups called “colectivos.”

“The question is: how will Nicolas Maduro be able to incorporate the far-left of the ‘Chavista’ movement, those who want to radicalise and deepen this revolution….with those who have a more moderate view… and are more concerned with stability than deepening the revolution?” Ciccariella-Maher told FRANCE 24.

FRANCE 24's Douglas Herbert analyses the death of Hugo Chavez

Some have suggested Maduro might try to ease tensions with Western investors and the US government. Yet hours before Chavez’s death, Maduro alleged that “imperialist” enemies had infected the president with cancer, and he expelled two US diplomats accused of conspiring with domestic opponents.

A victory by Capriles, 40, a centrist politician who calls Brazil his model for Venezuela, would bring big changes and be welcomed by business groups, although he would probably move cautiously to lower the risk of political instability.

“This is not the time to stress what separates us,” Capriles said in a condolence message, calling for unity and respect for the loss that many felt after Chavez’s death. “There are thousands, maybe millions, of Venezuelans asking themselves what will happen, who even feel fear ... Don’t be scared. Don’t be anxious. Between us all, we’re going to guarantee the peace this beloved country deserves.”

Condolences from Latin American leaders

Military commanders pledged loyalty to Maduro, who will be Venezuela’s caretaker leader until the election. Soldiers fired 21-gun salutes in barracks across Venezuela at 8am to honour Chavez.

It was not immediately clear where Chavez would be buried. He had ordered a striking new mausoleum built in downtown Caracas for the remains of independence hero Simon Bolivar, his inspiration, and it is due to be finished soon.

Much of Caracas was quiet overnight, with streets deserted, especially in wealthier districts. Many shops locked their doors in fear of looting as news of Chavez’s death spread. There were long lines outside gasoline stations.

Meanwhile, condolences flooded in from around the world -- ranging from the Vatican and the United Nations to allies like Iran or Cuba.

Several Latin American leaders declared three days of national mourning Wednesday, including President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil and Chilean President Sebastian Pinera.

Presidents Cristina Kirchner of Argentina, Evo Morales of Bolivia and Jose Mujica of Uruguay travelled to Venezuela to attend the funeral.

US President Barack Obama was cautious in his reaction to the death of a man who put his country at loggerheads with Washington, saying his administration was interested in “developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government”.

(FRANCE 24 with wires)

 

 

Date created : 2013-03-06

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