Caracas: Latin American leaders and US foes pumped their fists in support of a crowd of cheering Hugo Chavez loyalists as they arrived Friday for the leftist leader’s state funeral before the nation swears in an interim president.
Venezuela has given a lavish farewell to the leftist firebrand, with hundreds of thousands of people filing past his open casket non-stop since Wednesday to say goodbye to the man who was worshipped by the oil-rich nation’s poor.
His body will lie in state for seven more days and officials said his body will be embalmed and preserved “like Lenin” to rest in a glass casket in the military barracks where he plotted a failed coup in 1992.
Foreign Minister Elias Jaua and a crowd of flag-waving Chavez supporters greeted leaders who began to arrive at the military academy for the funeral, which was supposed to start at 1530 GMT.
In the evening Nicolas Maduro, who was Chavez’s vice president, will be formally sworn-in as acting president and will call for elections, which are expected to be convened within 30 days.
Most Latin American leaders were attending the funeral, as well as bugbears of the West long courted by the anti-US Chavez, including Cuba’s Raul Castro, Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Belarussian strongman Alexander Lukashenko.
Ahmadinejad, looking emotional, hugged Jaua and pumped both fists in the air toward the Chavez loyalists cheering behind a fence in from the academy’s entrance.
When he had landed early Friday, the Iranian leader, whose nation’s nuclear program has angered the United States, said “Chavez will never die, his soul and spirit are alive in the hearts of fighters.”
Lukashenko, once dubbed “Europe’s last dictator” by the United States, smiled and pumped his left fist at the crowd.
Castro, whose nation’s economy relies on cheap Venezuelan oil shipments to stay afloat, waved both hands and then held them together.
Chavez’s mother, Elena Frias, raised her arms toward the cheering crowd, crying and wiping her tears with a white handkerchief.
Leaders from Africa and the Caribbean were attending the funeral but European nations sent lower-level delegations while the United States will be represented by its charge d’affaires and two Democratic Party politicians.
Spain sent the heir to the throne, Prince Felipe, while Russian President Vladimir Putin, a close Chavez ally, sent his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov.
Under Chavez Venezuela’s oil wealth underwrote the Castro brothers’ communist rule in Cuba, and he repeatedly courted confrontation with Washington by cozying up to anti-Western governments in Russia, Syria and Iran.
The former paratrooper, who died Tuesday at age 58 after a long battle with cancer, will lie in state an extra seven days to allow him to be viewed by everybody who wants to.
He will then be embalmed “like Ho Chi Minh, Lenin and Mao” and kept in a glass casket to be preserved “for eternity,” Maduro said Thursday.
Maduro said the body will be taken to the “Mountain Barracks” in the January 23 slum that was a bastion of Chavez support, a facility that is now being converted into a Museum of the Revolution.
It was there that Chavez had spearheaded what proved to be a failed coup against then-President Carlos Andres Perez on February 4, 1992. His arrest turned him into a hero, leading to his first of many election victories in 1998.
But Maduro suggested that Chavez may one day be moved elsewhere, a nod to popular pressure for him to be taken to the national pantheon to lie alongside Latin American independence hero Simon Bolivar.
Maduro, 50, has now taken on the leadership of Chavismo, a leftist movement that poured the nation’s oil riches into social programs.
He will likely face off in elections against opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chavez in the October presidential polls.
The government said more than two million people had come since Wednesday to get a glimpse of their hero, whose petrodollar-fueled socialism earned him friends and foes at home and abroad. Many stood in line through the night.
Chavez lay in a half-open, glass-covered casket in the academy’s hall, wearing olive green military fatigues, a black tie and the iconic red beret that became a symbol of his 14-year socialist rule.
People blew him kisses, made the sign of the cross or gave military salutes as they walked by. A four-man honor guard and four tall candelabras flanked the coffin, with a golden sword at the foot of it.
“It doesn’t matter how many hours we wait. We will be here until we see him,” said Luis Herrera, 49, a driver wearing a red beret who was in line with countless others in the middle of the night.
In a country divided by Chavez’s populist style, opinions of his legacy vary, with opposition supporters in better-off neighborhoods angry at the runaway murder rate, high inflation and expropriations.