Chavez funeral attracts world leaders

Venezuela bid farewell to President Hugo Chavez in an emotional funeral on Friday and then hours later inaugurated a new president, Nicolas Maduro, who pledges to continue the late leader’s radical economic and political transformation of one of the world’s great oil powers.

“I, Nicolas Maduro, militant in Chavez’s cause, assume his sash as the legitimate president, to lift the people, protect them and to follow the path of continuing the revolution,” the former vice president, 50, said after the presidential sash was placed over his shoulder upon taking the oath of office.

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Visitors at his mausoleum get to hear him talking, and talking, even as the country’s divisions deepen.

In keeping with the day’s tone of reverence for El Comandante, Maduro cried when speaking of him and eulogized him as a Christ-like savior who had delivered Venezuela from darkness in 14 years of rule. He didn’t shy away from acknowledging the challenges he faced and stressed that he was thrust into his new role without wanting it.

“This sash belongs to Hugo Chavez, our commander in chief,” Maduro said, his voice cracking before a packed congressional hall.

The tributes began hours before at the funeral, as left-wing celebrities and heads of state from as far away as Iran filed into a hall in this city’s military academy to hear Chavez celebrated for having countered American influence while giving voice to the poor.

“Here you are, unconquered, pure, transparent, unique, true and alive for all times,” Maduro said loudly, nearly breaking down in tears, as many in attendance gasped with grief. “Comandante, they couldn’t bring you down and they will never be able to defeat us, ever.”

The government’s glorification of Chavez will extend long beyond the funeral: Chavez’s body is to be preserved and put on display for eternity in a glass coffin, a decision
that delighted many of his red-shirted followers.

“They will build a mausoleum so we can see him eternally,” said Jose Antonio Muñoz, 62, who was excited at the prospect of visiting the late president whenever he wanted. “That’s the first time that happens in Latin America!”

Political analysts said the elaborate ceremony put on by the government and the initiative to display Chavez’s body in perpetuity would help instill in people the idea that they must follow the president’s grand designs for Venezuela, which include heavy state intervention in the economy and leading like-minded countries in opposing American foreign policy.

The central beneficiary will be Maduro, whom Chavez handpicked as his successor in his last public speech, on Dec. 8. Maduro will face a presidential campaign in the weeks ahead as mandated by the constitution upon the death of the head of state.

“There is an order from Chavez,” said Rafael Romero, a political scientist at the Central University of Venezuela.

“Without a doubt, all these manifestations contribute,” Romero said of the deification of Chavez. “It’s a way of saying, ‘We can’t betray him, because we’re talking about continuing his legacy.’ ”

After being largely silent in the three days since Chavez’s death on Tuesday at age 58, the opposition on Friday rejected a controversial Supreme Court ruling made earlier in the day that declared that Maduro had become acting president when Chavez died. The ruling opens the door for Maduro to be the government’s candidate in an election because the constitution bars sitting vice presidents from running for president.

“We are not going to permit that the pain that our people genuinely feel be an excuse for the abuse of power,” said Henrique Capriles, the 40-year-old governor who would likely be the opposition’s candidate.

Capriles’s criticism, though, was overshadowed by the pomp that surrounded the send-off for Chavez. The funeral was staged at the same military academy where he had been a cadet decades earlier.

Some Venezuelans said the ceremony was befitting of a monarch, with actors like Sean Penn arriving to mourn alongside the presidents of more than 30 countries. The dignitaries included close friends from the region, among them the presidents of Bolivia and Ecuador, and also allies from around the world, such as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran.

The United States, which Maduro earlier this week implied had taken part in a plot to infect Chavez with cancer that killed him, sent an understated delegation that included Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.) and former Massachusetts congressman William Delahunt (D). The United States does not have an ambassador based in Venezuela, the last one having been ousted by Chavez during one of the frequent spats he had with Washington.

Another American who was invited, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, led a prayer in which he called on God to help “heal the breach” between Venezuela and the Obama administration.

State television provided continuous coverage, with the hosts gushing about Chavez’s legacy, saying that he not only improved the lives of Venezuelans but also forged “a multi-
polar” world that challenged American supremacy.

“It’s unbelievable, it’s historic — imagine being out there to hear the people say, ‘All of us are Chavez,’ ” said one host. “That’s how it is. Chavez has given us a legacy — political, historic, cultural, economic.”

To be sure, those who make up Chavez’s political base, many of whom are urban poor, flocked to the academy during the past three days to get in line for the chance to say goodbye to their leader.

“It’s not the way you want to see him, but it was good, and I felt a good energy in that moment when I went in there,” said Kelly Garcia, 27. But she added that “he will not be replaced because no one can replace him.”

Many said they would take Chavez’s words to heart — and continue to support his self-styled revolution and Maduro.

“He did so much for us, and as long as we Venezuelans keep that in mind, then everything that he did hasn’t died,” said Maria Andrade, 54. “Now is the time when we need to keep in mind the values Hugo Chavez gave us.”

Emilia Diaz contributed to this report.

 
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