CARACAS -- In life, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez could always draw a crowd — whether dancing in the rain or riding atop a truck through the streets of Caracas. In death, he did not disappoint: Red-clad followers choked streets Wednesday, some hanging over bridges, as they sang and wept behind a hearse carrying his remains.
His brown wooden casket, surrounded by a civilian and military escort, left the Carlos Aveledo Military Hospital about 11 a.m. draped in the Venezuelan flag and topped with a wreath. When it arrived at the Military Academy seven hours later, it was piled high with flowers, hats and T-shirts thrown by the surging crowds.
The emotional procession was a fitting end for Chávez, 58, whose down-to-earth political style and “Bolivarian Revolution” made him a hero to the poor and helped fuel massive political rallies.
Victor Davila, a 33-year-old chef, was planning to follow the funeral hearse all day. He said he had attended dozens of Chávez’s rallies over the years and said the massive turnouts proved the nation’s love for their fallen leader.
“Look at all these people,” he said, gesturing toward the crowds. “They didn’t want to miss his final march.”
Chávez, a fiery socialist who led the country for 14 years, died Tuesday after an almost two-year battle with cancer. During his tenure, he poured the nation’s oil wealth into social programs, including free healthcare, education and subsidized housing that won the gratitude of many and helped build an unassailable political base.
As a brass band played, soldiers marched his casket into the atrium of the Military Academy, where the one-time tank commander got his training and recruited fellow cadets to join a coup in 1992. The coup failed, but it launched his political career and he won the presidency seven years later. Venezuelans have been invited to view his body, which will lay in state until Friday.
Never defeated at the ballot box, Chávez’s death gives Venezuela’s battered opposition a chance to see if they can do better against his handpicked successor, Vice President Nicolás Maduro.
Under the constitution, new elections should be held within 30 days, and many in Wednesday’s crowd said they would back Maduro as a tribute to Chávez.
“For us revolutionaries, Maduro is no longer Maduro, he is Chávez,” said Carlos Araujo, a 35-year-old electrical worker.
Maduro, 50, walked in front of the hearse, jostled by the crowds and accompanied by Bolivian President Evo Morales and other cabinet members. The funeral could kick off an intense political race for the one-time union organizer and former foreign minister.
To remain at the helm, he’ll likely have to face 40-year-old Henrique Capriles, the energetic governor of Venezuela’s most populous state, Miranda. Capriles ran against Chávez in October, and although he failed to win, he attracted a record number of votes. That has made him the perceived frontrunner as the coalition of opposition parties, known as the MUD, tries to choose a single candidate to take on the administration.
A source close to the MUD, who was not authorized to speak to the media, said the eventual contender would not be announced until the government sets the date for new elections.
Even so, many analysts give Maduro the edge.
“Chavismo retains high degrees of popular support, and the sympathy effect, together with the fear that without Chávez the opposition could reverse [his] policies will make him very competitive,” wrote Risa Grais-Targow, an analyst with the Eurasia group. “In addition, the government has ample resources and a high capacity to mobilize supporters, all of which will strengthen his candidacy.”
But doubts about Maduro persist in many quarters.
Tatiana Carrero, a 39-year-old graphic designer, said she feared that Maduro’s bellicose style and verbal attacks on the opposition were going to further polarize Venezuela.
“If things weren’t calm here with Chávez, I think it’s going to be even worse with Maduro,” she said. “All I’m hoping for now is that whatever comes next isn’t worse than what we had.”
Even some Chávistas in the crowd admitted that voting for Maduro would be an act of faith.
“Only time will tell if Maduro is the man for the job,” said Amador Carrazco, 48. “But Chávez was wise and he had his reasons; and as good disciples, we’ll give Maduro our vote.”
The procession lasted for more than seven hours and collapsed traffic and phone lines in parts of the city, but near Plaza Francia, an opposition stronghold, stores were open and traffic was lighter than usual.
Omar Desa, a 33-year-old architect, admitted that it wasn’t polite to speak ill of the dead “but we have to say things as they are: Chávez did a lot of damage to this country.”
Desa said he blamed the administration’s draconian dollar controls and price regulation for bankrupting his family’s clothing business. He also said that he feared Maduro would be swept into power on the backs of a sympathy vote.
“That’s what I’m truly sad about,” he said. “I don’t think our challenges are coming to an end.”
The national grief also seemed to have put the workings of government on hold, legal experts said. More than 24 hours after Chávez’s death, the National Assembly had not declared the presidency “vacant” and had not sworn in an acting president.
“Venezuela needs to have someone in charge of the presidency and for that to happen there has to be a swearing in,” said Cecilia Sosa Gomez, a former chief justice. “The reaction from the powers of state has been an emotional one. I’m not criticizing them for it, but we can’t forget about the constitution.”
A state funeral will be held Friday and leaders from around the world are expected. Some of Chavez’s staunchest supporters have already arrived.
Argentina’s President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Uruguay’s José Mujica traveled overnight. Bolivia’s Morales, a close friend of Chávez’s, arrived Wednesday morning.
Jesús Mendez, 32, brought his 5-year-old daughter to watch the procession so she might remember the man who was larger than life. Mendez said the Chávez administration had given his family a free house and helped his wife get through medical school.
“He has left a huge hole in this country, but he had so many projects and he has left the foundations set for the next president,” Mendez said. “Chávez is part of history now; he was a great father to Venezuela.”
Miami Herald staff writer Dan Chang in Miami contributed to this report.