The stage is set for President Hugo Chávez’s last appearance on the world stage, with leaders from five continents in Venezuela’s anxious capital for a funeral on Friday to remember a man who captivated the attention of millions and polarised his nation during 14 tumultuous years in power.
The ceremony will mark a dramatic exit for a president who quarrelled publicly with presidents and kings and ordered troops via live television to defend his country’s borders. It promises to also give his successors a prime opportunity to rally public support for continuing his political legacy.
Yet with basic details about the event unknown just hours before its scheduled start, the funeral also reflected a leader who tightly controlled all aspects of his government. Government officials said it would begin at 11 a.m. local time, but didn’t specify where it would take place or what would actually happen.
More than 30 heads of government, including Cuban President Raul Castro and Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, were scheduled to attend. U.S. Representative Gregory Meeks, a New York Democrat, and former Representative William Delahunt, a Democrat from Massachusetts, represented the United States, which Chávez often portrayed as a great global evil even as he sent the country billions of dollars in oil each year.
Maduro to take over as acting-President
Two hours before midnight on Thursday, National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello added yet more complications to the day’s schedule, appearing on national television to announce that Vice-President Nicolas Maduro will also be sworn in on Friday.
That drew criticism from former Venezuelan Supreme Court Judge Blanca Rosa Marmo, who said the government would be violating Venezuela’s Constitution, which specifies that the speaker of the National Assembly, currently Mr. Cabello, should assume the interim presidency if a president can’t be sworn in.
The government has designated Mr. Maduro, Chávez’s hand-picked successor, as the official socialist party candidate in a special presidential election that the constitution requires be held within 30 days.
For many Chávez supporters, the task ahead will be continuing the president’s political movement beyond his death.
“We must think about the future and how we are going to guarantee the continuity of the revolution,” said Rolando Tarazon, a street vendor who was waiting with his wife to see Chávez’s body lying in state at the army’s military academy in Caracas.
The funeral, for one, would likely be an important bid at continuing the Chávez legacy in what promises to become an extravagant exercise in political myth-making.
The government already launched that effort, organising a six-mile-long funeral cortege on Wednesday that drew hundreds of thousands of mourners.
Body to be on permanent display
Mr. Maduro also announced on Thursday that the late president’s body will be embalmed and forever displayed inside a glass tomb at a military museum not far from the presidential palace from which he ruled. That puts Chávez in the company of Communist revolutionary leaders such as Lenin, Mao and Ho Chi Minh, as well as father and son dictators of North Korea, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.
Mr. Maduro said Chávez would first lie in state for “at least” seven more days at the museum, which will eventually become his permanent home. It was not clear when exactly he would be moved from the military academy where his body had been since on Wednesday.
The announcement of the embalming plans came after two wrenching days for Chávez’s admirers. A sea of sobbing, heartbroken people jammed Venezuela’s main military academy on Thursday to view his body, some waiting hours and hours. On Thursday night, Mr. Castro and Uruguayan President Jose Mujica visited the viewing site.
Amid the mourning, some Venezuelans worried openly whether the nation’s anointed leaders are up to the task of governing. Others said they wanted to learn when the election will be held.
“People are beginning to get back to their lives. One must keep working,” said 40-year-old Caracas resident Laura Guerra, a Chávez supporter who said she was not yet sold on Maduro, the acting head of state and designated ruling party candidate. “I don’t think he will be the same. I don’t think he has the same strength that the ‘comandante’ had.”