'We're loyal till beyond death'
Fiery, foot-stomping funeral held for Chavez...
President Hugo Chavez was lauded as a modern-day reincarnation of Latin American liberator Simon Bolivar and a disciple of Cuba's Fidel Castro at a fiery, foot-stomping state funeral yesterday that at times smacked of a political rally, as presidents, princes and left-wing glitterati looked on.
Chavez's hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro, emotionally eulogised the fallen leader at the military academy where the funeral was held, his voice booming over Chavez's flag-draped casket as he pledged eternal loyalty.
"Here we are, Comandante, your men, on their feet," Maduro shouted, government officials rising behind him. "All your men and women... loyal until beyond death."
"Chavez lives!" he declared. "Mission accomplished!"
But all was not peace and harmony in a country deeply divided by Chavez's 14 years in power. The opposition coalition announced it would boycott Maduro's swearing-in later yesterday at the same military academy, calling it unconstitutional. The dispute foreshadows a bitter presidential campaign to come, with elections mandated within 30 days of Chavez's death.
The country's Supreme Court yesterday ruled Maduro became acting president when Chavez died—and could thus run in the election without having to step down. The constitution bars sitting vice-presidents from running for the top job. Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who is expected to challenge Maduro, called the decision a "fraud".
The funeral began with Venezuela's national youth orchestra singing the national anthem, led by famed conductor Gustavo Dudamel. A government-allied congressman later belted out cowboy songs from Chavez's native Barinas state.
The streets outside the military academy took on a carnival atmosphere, with military bands launching into marches and an expanse of supporters wearing the red of Chavez's socialist party. Street vendors sold paper replicas of the presidential sash, which many people in the line slipped over their shoulder.
Throngs watched the ceremony on huge monitors under the blazing sun, while a line to see Chavez's body stretched two kilometres but was halted as the funeral got under way.
In the funeral hall, more than 30 political leaders—including Cuba's Raul Castro, Spanish Crown Prince Felipe de Borbon and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—stood at attention before Chavez's flag-draped casket, which was closed for the ceremony.
Maduro said no Venezuelan leader, even Bolivar, who died in exile, faced and overcame such treachery and opposition as Chavez, who succumbed to cancer on Tuesday, at the age of 58. "Here you are, unconquered, pure, transparent, unique, true and always alive," Maduro shouted as many in attendance cried. "Comandante, they couldn't defeat you and they will never, ever defeat us."
Despite the blustery language of his speech and the expulsion on Tuesday of two US military attaches on suspicion of spying, Maduro made a point of welcoming the US delegation led by Rep Gregory Meeks, a New York Democrat, and former Rep William Delahunt, a Democrat from Massachusetts. Chavez often railed against America, even as he sold the country billions of dollars in oil each year.
State Department officials have voiced hope Maduro will prove a more pragmatic leader than the often bombastic Chavez, assuming he wins a full term.
Television cameras captured Hollywood actor Sean Penn in attendance at the funeral, while the Rev Jesse Jackson preached rapprochement between his country and Venezuela. "We pray to God today that you will heal the breach between the US and Venezuela," Jackson said.
But US enemies such as Castro and Ahmadinejad also won loud applause.
"It is a great pain for us because we have lost a friend," Ahmadinejad said upon his arrival at the airport the night before. "I feel like I have lost myself, but I am sure that he still lives. Chavez will never die. His spirit and soul live on in each of our hearts."
Maduro announced Thursday that the government would embalm Chavez's body and put it on permanent display—a decision that touched off strong passions on both sides of this deeply divided country. • See Page 23