From Central America to Tierra del Fuego, the leaders of Latin America’s new left — some of them populist nationalists who revel in defying the United States — are here or on their way to grieve a man who saw himself as leader of “the peoples of our America.”
For leaders such as Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, himself a fiery president, it is clear that the death of the 58-year-old leaves a void that will be difficult to fill for the radical leaders who rose to power in the region after Chavez was swept into office in 1999.
Almost all of them pledge to carry forward the torch as this oil-rich country of 29 million prepares a funeral on Friday that will include pomp and circumstance and a heavy dose of mythmaking. There will be another momentous event later in the day, when Nicolas Maduro, the vice president, takes the oath of office at the Caracas military academy where Chavez has lain in state and officially becomes Venezuela’s leader.
“We have the commitment, today more than ever, to complete your dreams,” Correa said before the cameras in his homeland, fighting back tears. “Wherever you are, we will complete those dreams. Long live Hugo Chavez Frias! Long live Latin America!”
Correa, who became a close friend to Chavez, and Morales have borrowed heavily from the tenets of what Chavez called 21st-century socialism — intervening in the economy, putting state institutions under the executive’s control and corralling opponents and the press.
But although the Ecuadoran leader and, at times, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega wade into the international arena, neither has the bombast and verve — or the gift for a folksy line — that Chavez had. Nor do they have the deep pockets of a leader who sat on the world’s biggest oil reserves.
Eric Farnsworth, who runs the Washington office of the Council of the Americas policy group, said he believes that what also set Chavez apart was the symbolism he evoked, of a populist hero leading the masses out of darkness.
“He spoke for a certain dimension of the political spectrum in Latin America, and in that sense he’s going to be hard to replace,” Farnsworth said. “No one has Hugo Chavez’s combination of charisma, vision and money. He had a vision he was working for. He had charisma to inspire whole populations, and he had the money to finance it.”
The more than 30 heads of state who will be here for the funeral will see a country that is in the midst of venerating its dead leader like few others, at least in modern times.
Indeed, on Thursday afternoon, the vice president announced on national television that Chavez’s body would not be buried on Friday — but rather would be on view at a museum for at least seven more days. Then Maduro told Venezuelans about another initiative.