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.
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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.
Moments later, Castro stood before the coffin, stared at it for several minutes and finally raised his right hand in a military salutes that lasted several seconds.
The foreign ministry statement said that among leaders expected for the funeral were:
Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner; Ecuador’s Rafael Correa; Chile’s Sebastían Piñera; Perú’s Ollanta Humala; Bolivia’s Evo Morales; Uruguay’s Mujica; Panama’s Ricardo Martinelli; Honduras’s Porfirio Lobo; Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos; El Salvador’s Mauricio Funes; Haiti’s Michael Martelly; Dominican Republic’s Danilo Medina; Mexico’s Enrique Peña Nieto; Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko.
The U.S. embassy in Caracas, meanwhile, disclosed that a low-level U.S. delegation will attend the funeral. An embassy statement said U.S. delegates include former Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y. and James Derham, the charge d’affaires at the U.S. embassy in Caracas. Chávez’s followers demanded loudly Wednesday during the funeral procession that burial take place at the National Pantheon, final resting place of Venezuelan heroes, such as Simón Bolivar, hero of independence from Spain.
National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello has said he would do everything possible to have Chávez’s remains buried at the National Pantheon.
But Maduro said Chávez’s remains will be moved to the Museum of the Revolution then lay in state in a mausoleum there for the foreseeable future, though he did not rule out moving Chávez later to the National Pantheon.
Chávez died Tuesday after battling cancer for almost two years. But cancer may not have been the ultimately cause of death. Gen. José Ornella, held of the presidential guard, told The Associated Press that in the end Chávez suffered a massive heart attack. AP quoted Ornella as saying that until the end, Chávez wanted to stay alive, but “a massive heart attack that struck him” was what caused his death. Other Venezuelan government officials, however, said they could not verify Ornella’s assertion.
Mourners in line said they were willing to wait hours for a chance to see the coffin not only because they agreed with Chávez’s ideology, but also because their lives and those of their children had definitely improved under the late Venezuelan leader.
“Before Chávez, the poor working class people of Venezuela like me did not really have a chance to succeed because everything seemed geared to help the rich people,” said Yomilde Ron, who waited in to see Chávez’s coffin. “Now, our children have a chance to go to the university, to get a computer, and many of those benefits are free under Chávez.”
Elsy Narvaez, who also was in line, said she didn’t mind waiting hours in the heat to see Chávez because she wanted to thank him for making poor people feel dignified and not “inferior” to the wealthy.
“Chávez was a leader who created a new history in Venezuela, one in which the poor are no longer trampled,” she said.
But an opposition leader voiced a different view about Chávez’s death and what it portends to the future of Venezuela.
In a statement, opposition leader María Corina Machado stressed the need for Venezuelan leaders to respect the constitution during the transition of the post-Chávez period.
“It is everybody’s task: citizens and leaders should assume the tireless commitment to do what is necessary to hold democratic elections,” she said in the statement.