Leaders gather in Venezuela for funeral of Hugo Chavez
7:14 AM, Mar 8, 2013
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) - The stage is set for President Hugo Chavez's last appearance on the world stage, with leaders from five continents in Venezuela's anxious capital for a funeral Friday to remember a man who captivated the attention of millions and polarized his nation during 14 tumultuous years in power.
The ceremony will mark a dramatic exit for a president who quarreled 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.
For nearly two years, and even after his death Tuesday, Chavez's government has been similarly tight-fisted with information about Chavez's cancer, not indicating exactly where or what it was.
More than 30 heads of government, including Cuban President Raul Castro and Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, were scheduled to attend. U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks, a New York Democrat, and former Rep. William Delahunt, a Democrat from Massachusetts, represented the United States, which Chavez often portrayed as a great global evil even as he sent the country billions of dollars in oil each year.
Two hours before midnight 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 Cabello, should assume the interim presidency if a president can't be sworn in.
The government has designated Maduro, Chavez'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 Chavez 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 Chavez'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 Chavez legacy in what promises to become an extravagant exercise in political myth-making.
The government already launched that effort, organizing a six-mile-long funeral cortege Wednesday that drew hundreds of thousands of mourners.
Maduro also announced 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 Chavez 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.
Maduro said Chavez 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 Wednesday.
Oscar Valles, a political analyst at the Metropolitan University in Caracas, said the perpetual display of Chavez's body was about keeping his power structure alive, long after his death at age 58.
"Nicolas Maduro and his government is building an aura that makes it very difficult, I would say, that in the future, the opposition tries to promote an alternative to the government," Valles said.
The announcement of the embalming plans came after two wrenching days for Chavez's admirers. A sea of sobbing, heartbroken people jammed Venezuela's main military academy Thursday to view his body, some waiting hours and hours. On Thursday night, 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 Chavez 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."