Grand pageantry expected for mourning of Chavez

In this photo released by Miraflores Press Office, Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez, left, Venezuela's interim President Nicolas Maduro, second from left, Uruguay's President Jose Mujica, third from left, Bolivia's President Evo Morales, fourth from left, and Mujica's wife, Uruguayan Senator Luci AP Photo/Miraflores Presidential Press Office

CARACAS, Venezuela Venezuelans stripped of their larger-than-life leader awoke to an uncertain future on Wednesday, with jittery throngs flocking to supermarkets and gas stations to stock up, and anti-American vitriol infusing official statements and the chants of the street.

A flag-draped coffin carrying the body of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez floated over a sea of supporters Wednesday on its way to the national military academy where it will lie in state.

Seven days of mourning have been declared, and all school was suspended for the week. This economically challenged and violence-afflicted nation is nonetheless expected to put on an elaborate funeral Friday.

Tens of thousands lined the streets or walked with the casket in the capital along its eight-mile procession, many weeping as the body approached, led by a grim drum major. Other mourners pumped their fists and held aloft images of the late president, amid countless waving yellow, blue and red Venezuelan flag.

"The fight goes on! Chavez lives!" shouted the mourners 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 at the age of 58. Vice President Nicolas Maduro, Chavez's anointed successor, walked with the crowd, along with Cabinet members and uniformed soldiers.

"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."

The former paratrooper will remain at the military academy until his Friday funeral, which promises to draw leaders from all over the world. Already, the presidents of Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia have arrived to mourn a man whose passing leaves an enormous void in the region's anti-American left.

"The Chavez-less era begins," declared a front-page headline in Caracas's El Universal newspaper.

But even in death, Chavez's orders were being heeded in a country covered with posters bearing his image and graffiti pledging "We are all Chavez!"

The man he anointed to succeed him, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, will continue to run Venezuela as interim president and be the governing socialists' candidate in an election to be called within 30 days.

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, despite a constitutional mandate that the armed forces play a non-political role.

The streets of Caracas were free of the usual weekday morning traffic as public employees, schoolchildren and many others stayed home on the first day of a week of national mourning. The only lines were at gas stations where Venezuelans could fill up their tanks for pennies a gallon thanks to generous government subsidies.

For diehard Chavistas who camped out all night outside the military hospital where the former paratrooper died, Wednesday was the first full day without a leader many described as a father figure, an icon in the mold of the early 19th century liberator Simon Bolivar. Others saw the death of a man who presided over Venezuela as a virtual one-man show as an opportunity to turn back the clock on his socialist policies.

For both sides, uncertainty ruled the day.

It was not immediately clear when the presidential vote would be held, or where or when Chavez would be buried following Friday's pageant-filled funeral.

Venezuela's constitution specifies that the speaker of the National Assembly, currently Diosdado Cabello, should assume the interim presidency if a president can't be sworn in. The constitution also specifies an election should be called within 30 days of the president's death, but it is unclear whether that means it should be scheduled or held in that time frame.

The officials left in charge by Chavez before he went to Cuba in December for his fourth cancer surgery have not been especially assiduous about heeding the constitution, and human rights and free speech activists are concerned they will flaunt the rule of law.

Tuesday was a day fraught with mixed signals, some foreboding. Just a few hours before announcing Chavez's death, Maduro virulently accused enemies, domestic and foreign — clearly including the United States — of trying to undermine Venezuelan democracy. The government said two U.S. military attaches had been expelled for allegedly trying to destabilize the nation.

But in announcing that the president was dead, Maduro shifted tone, calling on Venezuelans to be "dignified heirs of the giant man."

"Let there be no weakness, no violence. Let there be no hate. In our hearts there should only be one sentiment: Love. Love, peace and discipline."

Capriles, who lost to Chavez in the October presidential election and is widely expected to be the opposition's candidate to oppose Maduro, was conciliatory in a televised address.

"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."

Capriles, the youthful governor of Miranda state, has been feuding with Maduro and other Chavez loyalists who accused him of conspiring with far-right U.S. forces to undermine the revolution.

Across downtown Caracas, shops and restaurants began closing and Venezuelans hustled for home, some even breaking into a run when the news was announced. Many looked anguished and incredulous.

"I feel a sorrow so big I can't speak," said Yamilina Barrios, a 39-year-old clerk who works in the Industry Ministry, her face covered in tears. "He was the best this country had."

Others wished Chavez's departure had come through the ballot box.

Carlos Quijada, a 38-year-old economist, said that "now there is a lot of uncertainty about what will happen."

He said a peaceful transition depends on the government. "If it behaves democratically we should not have many problems," Quijada said.

Like most Venezuelans, he said his big concern is ending violent crime that afflicts all strata of society, from the poor Chavez wooed with state largesse to the economic elite at the core of the political opposition.

Venezuela has the world's second-highest murder rate after Honduras: 56 people for every 100,000 according to government figures, which nongovernmental groups say are understated.

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