CARACAS -- Hundreds of thousands of President Hugo Chávez’s followers waited hours in a three-mile-long line Thursday to file past the late leader’s coffin as Cuban leader Raúl Castro and other presidents arrived to attend Friday’s state funeral.
Castro’s unexpected arrival in the early afternoon at the Simon Bolivar International Airport was broadcast live by the official Venezuelan television network VTV. He was greeted by Foreign Minister Elías Jaua and a small military honor guard, but did not make public comments.
Castro’s was followed a few minutes later by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, and her predecessor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Venezuelan Vice President Nicolás Maduro said Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was expected late Thursday, the latest of more than 55 leaders to attend the funeral.
Maduro also announced that the government will not bury the late Venezuelan leader as had been expected. Instead, said Maduro, Chávez will be embalmed like the late Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin and will lie in state for the foreseeable future at a soon-to-be-built mausoleum at the Museum of the Revolution to which his remains will be transferred.
Meantime, Maduro said the huge crowd that still waited late Thursday to file past Chávez’s coffin will be asked to return after the funeral because the viewing of the remains will be extended for at least seven more days. It was unclear whether the seven-day viewing will resume at the Military Academy or be shifted to the Museum of the Revolution.
The line where mourners stood hoping to catch a glimpse of the coffin stretched for miles under a fiery sun. Those who filed past the coffin gave it quick military salutes, crossed themselves religiously, or touched the bier. There were women carrying babies, elderly couples and young men and women, many wearing the red shirts typical of those worn by Chávez supporters. Many of the people who came to see the coffin spent the night in the long line.
Throughout the morning Thursday, the line that snaked around the gardens and monuments near the Military Academy was slow but orderly. But by early afternoon, some chaos ensued as guards unexpectedly removed some of the metal barricades that had held the line in check. Suddenly, the crowd rushed forward and began running toward the academy. It was unclear if guards closer to the academy managed to restore it, but the line inside the academy was not disrupted.
On Thursday, Venezuelan foreign ministry officials released the list containing dozens of heads of state expected for the Friday morning funeral. Castro’s name was not on the list. But suddenly, around 1:30 p.m., VTV broke into the live broadcast of crowds filing past the coffin to show Castro’s airport arrival. He was seen getting off a small executive-type jet and being greeted by Venezuelan officials.
Later in the day, Castro arrived at the Military Academy to view the coffin containing Chavez’s remains, giving the late Venezuelan leader a military salute and comforting his mother and daughters.
Accompanied by Maduro, Castro arrived at the site minutes after the arrival of Uruguayan President José "Pepe" Mujica.
Castro’s appearance before the Chávez’s coffin was his first public appearance after his arrival. When he arrived at the Military Academy, security guards stopped the queue of people who were filing past the coffin. Castro immediately embraced Chavez’s mother, Elena Frias, as she cried on his shoulder. Castro then greeted Chavez’s daughters, and then Mujica.