March 8, 2013

Venezuela bids farewell to Hugo Chávez, swears in Nicolás Maduro

Venezuela has a new interim president and will have to gear up for new elections, after an emotional funeral for President Hugo Chávez.

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.

In 2006, Chávez called George W. Bush “the devil” at the United Nations, and the two countries have not had ambassadors since 2008. U.S. legislators have also accused Venezuela of helping Iran and Syria end-run sanctions and violating civil liberties.

Even so, the Rev. Jesse Jackson was invited to pray at the funeral, and he called for the two nations to resolve their differences. The United States is Venezuela’s largest importer of oil and professional baseball players, he reminded the crowd.

“Whatever problems that we may have had in the past, let’s try to look at the mutual benefit of our relationship,” he said after the service. “Forgive, redeem and move on.”

Hollywood actor Sean Penn, who has visited Chávez repeatedly in the past, was also among the invitees.

As the presidents filed into the ceremony, surging crowds around the Military Academy cheered their arrival and chanted “Chávez lives!”

Ahmadinejad received some of the loudest applause. As he approached the casket, he laid his hand on the Venezuelan flag and pumped his clenched fist.

Chávez “was like a clear spring,” Ahmadinejad told state-run TV. “His heart was full of love for the people.”

After taking office in 1999, Chávez helped build regional and hemispheric trade blocks to counter what he saw as the United States’ outsized influence in the region, and to welcome an ostracized Cuba back into the fold. Venezuela sends hundreds of thousands of barrels of subsidized fuel to its allies in the region.

Many of those sweetheart deals are coming under fire as the nation is deeply in debt, facing spiraling inflation, and recently devalued its currency. Some analysts expect the deals, including the 100,000 barrels of oil that’s sent to Cuba daily, to be modified under a new administration.

Venezuela has also been a big supporter of Haiti and was the first nation to respond after the 2010 devastating earthquake. The Haitian government has said that Venezuela sends it some $30 million worth of fuel a month, which is being financed at terms of 25-years and 1 percent interest.

Chávez’s “dream was to unify the region so we could progress and make our own decision,” Haitian President Michel Martelly told state-run TV. “We are sure that our friendship will continue and it will continue the same as usual.”

A handful of the leaders later attended Maduro’s swearing-in ceremony inside the National Assembly. In some parts of the city, people banged pots and pans in protest.

Maduro will hold the interim president post until new elections are held. The constitution says the vote must come within 30 days after a president’s death.


Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles, who will likely be facing Maduro in the race, accused congress and Maduro of violating the constitution by moving him into the presidency before the election. While the constitution requires the vice president and governors to leave their position to become candidates, the president does not face such restrictions.

“This swearing-in is completely spurious,” he said. “No one elected Nicolás president.”

The Coalition of Opposition Parties, known as the MUD, did not immediately respond to Maduro’s claim that they were considering boycotting the election.

Throughout the day, tens of thousands of supporters filed past Chávez’s coffin to catch a glimpse of the man whose housing, health and education programs made him a hero to many.

People who saw him said he was wearing his green military fatigues, a red beret and his presidential sash. They also said his face was slightly bloated. The government has not released images of Chávez’s body and independent media have not been allowed into the viewing room.

But the world will have its chance. On Thursday, Maduro said Chávez will not be buried, but embalmed like the late Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin, so he can be seen “for eternity.”

Chávez’s followers have been asking that his body rest at the National Pantheon — reserved for liberation heroes, including Bolivar.

Venezuela’s constitution says only those who have been dead for 25 years are eligible for the move, but the government has been floating the idea of an amendment to pave the way for Chávez.


Meanwhile, his body will remain at the Military Academy through Thursday, before it is taken to the hilltop military base where the government is building the “Museum of the Revolution.”

Juan Silva, a 63-year-old retired architect, waited in line for almost 24 hours to see the former president. Dressed in military fatigues, Silva said he favored the idea of putting Chávez on permanent display.

“It’s not the same as having him below ground as above ground,” he said. “As long as we can see him, we are going to defend the revolution.”

Sentiment was far more muted in South Florida.

As Rafael Semidey worked through breakfast Friday morning at El Arepazo 2 — a Venezuelan restaurant in Doral — he didn’t even bother to glance at coverage of Chávez’s funeral playing on the flat screen television above him.

“I am not really interested,” said Semidey, 46, of Coral Gables and a Venezuelan native.

“Every human being deserves a funeral, but this is not a funeral. This is media propaganda.”

Chávez died Tuesday from complications related to an undisclosed form of cancer he had been battling since at least June 2011. However, the head of the presidential guard told the Associated Press that Chávez died of a massive heart attack.

Ana Puello, 30, a secretary, was in line for more than 25 hours. She said it was important for her to see Chávez, but she didn’t think he should be preserved forever.

“He’s not a saint, he’s a hero,” she said. “He spent 14 years fighting for the country and we should let him rest.”

Miami Herald staff writers Jacqueline Charles and Paradise Afshar in Miami contributed to this report.

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