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.