CARACAS -- Diplomats, celebrities, and tens of thousands of supporters bid farewell Friday to President Hugo Chávez in an emotional ceremony that underscored the sometimes controversial global alliances he forged during his 14 years in power.
Hours after the ceremony, Vice President Nicolás Maduro, Chávez’s handpicked successor, was sworn in as interim president and ordered the National Electoral Council to call new elections.
Maduro said there were rumors that the opposition might boycott the vote, which could come within the month, but he challenged them to present a candidate.
“Whatever day the [Council] decides, we are ready for elections,” he said. “But from right now, we must go to the streets and build the power to continue this Bolivarian Revolution.”
During his speech shortly after receiving the presidential sash, Maduro said Chávez often worked through pain during his 18-month battle with cancer. And that in June 2011, when a tumor in his pelvis was first removed, the president had the premonition it would sideline him.
“This is going to be worse than you think,” Maduro recalled Chávez saying. “And it’s going to be worse than the doctors are telling us.”
“Forgive my tears,” Maduro said. “But this presidential sash belongs to Hugo Chávez.”
He also named Science and Technology Minister Jorge Arreaza, Chávez’s son-in-law, as the new vice president.
The event capped an emotional day, which began with dozens of world leaders attending Chávez’s funeral at the Military Academy.
The three-hour service, shown live around the world via television or the Internet, was full of song and symbolism, as Maduro told his boss he could “go in peace” because his successors would carry out his orders.
“We’ll keep protecting the poor, feeding those who need it and building a greater nation,” he said. “Mission accomplished, Commander President Chávez. The fight continues.”
Along with the leaders of Colombia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador, the ceremony attracted figures not often seen in the Western Hemisphere.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Belorussian leader Alexander Lukashenko and Syria’s Minister of Presidential Affairs Mansour Fadlallah Azzam were also present. Venezuela has embraced all three nations, even as they have faced international sanctions.
Seeing those presidents alongside a U.S. delegation, which included former Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass. and Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., was a sign of the Chávez administration’s plurality, said former Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel.
“We can all live in peace if we just respect diverse ideas,” he said. “Everyone fits into this process, both inside the country and in the international political world.”
Although Maduro railed at the “imperialist elite,” of U.S. politics, he said he hoped relations between the two countries would improve.
The United States and Venezuela have often been at odds. Earlier this week, Maduro expelled two U.S. diplomats and accused them of conspiring with members of the armed forces to destabilize the country. He also suggested the United States and other enemies might have given the 58-year-old Chávez the undisclosed form of cancer that killed him on Tuesday.