Venezuelans Mourn Chavez as Focus Turns to Election

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
Fernando Llano

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's death has unleashed a flood of emotional tributes that his allies hope will help ensure the survival of his self-styled socialist revolution when voters elect a successor.

The 58-year-old died on Tuesday after a two-year battle with cancer that was first detected in his pelvis. He had suffered multiple complications following his latest operation on Dec. 11 and had not been seen in public since then.

Tens of thousands of Venezuelans immediately took to the streets to honor the flamboyant and outspoken leader, and the mourning will continue when his body lies in state on Wednesday.

The future of Chavez's leftist policies, which won him the adoration of poor Venezuelans but infuriated opponents who denounced him as a dictator, now rests on the shoulders of Vice President Nicolas Maduro, the man he tapped to succeed him.

"In the immense pain of this historic tragedy that has affected our fatherland, we call on all the compatriots to be vigilant for peace, love, respect and tranquility," Maduro said.

"We ask our people to channel this pain into peace."

Maduro, a 50-year-old former bus driver and union leader, will likely face opposition state governor Henrique Capriles at the next election.

Authorities said the vote would be called within 30 days, but it was not clear if that meant it would be held within 30 days or just whether the date would be announced in that period.

One recent opinion poll gave Maduro a strong lead over Capriles, in part because he has received Chavez's blessing as his heir apparent, and he is likely to benefit from the surge of emotion following the president's death.

Maduro has been a close ally of Chavez for years and would be very unlikely to make major policy changes.

Some have suggested he might try to ease tensions with investors and the U.S. government although, hours before Chavez's death, Maduro alleged that "imperialist" enemies had infected the president with cancer as one of a number of conspiracies with domestic opponents.

'Don't Be Anxious'

A victory by Capriles would bring deep changes to Venezuela and would be welcomed by business groups and foreign investors, although he would probably move cautiously in order to lower the risk of political instability and violence.

"This is not the time to stress what separates us," Capriles said in a statement on Tuesday night, calling for unity and respect for the loss that many felt after Chavez's demise.

"Today there are thousands, maybe millions, of Venezuelans who are asking themselves what will happen, who even feel fear ... Don't be scared. Don't be anxious. Between us all, we're going to guarantee the peace this beloved country deserves."

Military commanders quickly pledged loyalty to Maduro, who will be Venezuela's caretaker leader until the election. Defense Minister Diego Morales said a 21-gun salute would be fired at 8 a.m. (1230 GMT) on Wednesday to honor Chavez.

Much of Caracas was quiet overnight, with streets deserted, especially in wealthier parts of the capital. Most shops had locked their doors in fear of looting as the news of Chavez's death spread.

Although they had had weeks to come to terms with Chavez's likely demise, many Chavez supporters were overcome with grief.

"He was our father," said Nancy Jotiya, 56, sobbing in Caracas's central Plaza Bolivar. "He taught us to defend ourselves. Chavismo is not over! We are the people. We will fight!"

There was sadness in other Latin American countries too, especially those run by leftist governments that have relied heavily on Chavez's oil-funded economic aid.

They include communist-led Cuba, which recovered from financial ruin in the 1990s largely thanks to preferential oil deals with Chavez's government.

Hundreds of emotional "Chavista" loyalists gathered on Tuesday night outside the military hospital where he spent his last two weeks. A female TV reporter from neighboring Colombia was beaten up, and gunshots were fired in the air.


Messages of condolence for Chavez's death flooded in from U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and ideological friends and opponents alike across Latin America, as well as Chavez's ally Iran.

U.S. President Barack Obama was less effusive about a man who put his country at loggerheads with Washington, saying his administration was interested in "developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government".

Chavez led Venezuela for 14 years and had easily won a new six-year term at an election in October, defeating Capriles.

His folksy charisma, anti-U.S. diatribes and oil-financed projects to improve life for residents of long-neglected slums created an unusually powerful bond with many poor Venezuelans.

That intense emotional connection underpinned his rule, but critics saw his autocratic style, gleeful nationalizations and often harsh treatment of rivals as hallmarks of a dictator whose misguided policies squandered a historic bonanza of oil revenues.

Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world but the nationalizations and strict currency controls under Chavez frightened off investors. Even some of his followers complained that he focused too much on ideological issues at the expense of day-to-day problems such as power cuts, high inflation, food shortages and violent crime.

On Wednesday, Chavez's body will be transferred to a military academy where it will lie in state until his official funeral on Friday. Seven days of mourning will also be observed.

"The funeral of Chavez is going to rival Eva Peron's," said Daniel Hellinger, a U.S.-based Venezuela expert, recalling the beloved first lady of Argentina, who died aged 33 in 1952 at the height of her popularity.

Chavez's health weakened severely just after his re-election on Oct. 7, possibly due to his decision to campaign for a third term instead of stepping aside to focus on his recovery.

Chavez built a highly centralized system around his larger-than-life image, and his tireless, micro-managing style created something close to a personality cult.

Maduro will now focus on marshalling support from Chavez's diverse coalition, which includes leftist ideologues, business leaders, and radical armed groups called "colectivos".

The vice president has in recent weeks mimicked Chavez's rabble-rousing style, peppering his speeches with insults aimed at adversaries.