Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 December 2014

Crowds for Chavez coffin procession

President of Venezuela Hugo Chavez has died aged 58
The flag-draped coffin containing the body of Hugo Chavez is taken from the hospital where he died to a military academy (AP)
The flag-draped coffin containing the body of Venezuela's late president Hugo Chavez (AP)
Hugo Chavez poses for a photo with his daughters, Maria Gabriela, left, and Rosa Virginia. (AP/Miraflores Presidential Press Office)

A flag-draped coffin carrying the body of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez floated over a sea of supporters in Caracas on its way to a military academy where it will lie in state.

Away from the procession route, jittery Venezuelans facing an uncertain future without their larger-than-life leader flocked to supermarkets and petrol stations to stock up on supplies, preparing for the worst a day after Mr Chavez succumbed to cancer.

Tens of thousands lined the streets or walked with the casket in the capital, many weeping as the body approached, led by a grim drum major. Other mourners pumped their fists and held aloft images of the late president, amid countless waving yellow, blue and red Venezuelan flags.

"The fight goes on! Chavez lives!" shouted the mourners in unison, many through eyes red from crying late into the night.

Mr Chavez's bereaved mother Elena Frias de Chavez leaned against her son's casket, while a priest read a prayer before the procession left the military hospital where Mr Chavez died at the age of 58. Vice president Nicolas Maduro, Mr Chavez's anointed successor, walked with the crowd, along with Cabinet members and uniformed soldiers.

The former paratrooper will remain at the military academy until his Friday funeral, which promises to draw leaders from all over the world. Already, the presidents of Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia have arrived to mourn a man whose passing leaves an enormous void in the region's anti-American left.

But even in death, Mr Chavez's orders were being heeded in a country covered with posters bearing his image and graffiti pledging "We are all Chavez!" Mr Maduro will continue to run Venezuela as interim president and will stand as candidate of Mr Chavez's socialist party in an election the country's constitution requires be called within 30 days.

It was not immediately clear when the presidential vote would be held, or where or when Mr Chavez would be buried following Friday's pageant-filled funeral.

Venezuela's constitution specifies that the speaker of the National Assembly, currently Diosdado Cabello, should assume the interim presidency if a president cannot be sworn in. But critics say the officials left in charge by Mr Chavez before he went to Cuba in December for his fourth cancer surgery have not been assiduous about heeding the constitution, and human rights and free speech activists are concerned they will flaunt the rule of law. Many took to Twitter to cite Article 233 of the constitution, which they said establishes Mr Cabello as the rightful interim president.

Just a few hours before announcing Mr Chavez's death, Mr Maduro virulently accused foreign and domestic enemies, clearly including the United States, of trying to undermine Venezuelan democracy. The government said two US military attaches had been expelled for allegedly trying to destabilise the nation, and Mr Maduro insisted that Mr Chavez was purposefully "attacked" with cancer. He said a scientific commission would be set up to investigate. There has been no word on any plans for a post-mortem examination, and while the government has said Mr Chavez suffered from cancer, it has never specified the exact location or type of cancer.

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