WORLD leaders and throngs of ordinary Venezuelans gathered yesterday at the state funeral of Hugo Chávez, paying tribute to the fiery president who died this week after a long struggle against cancer.
Cuban president Raul Castro, Juan Miguel Santos of Colombia, and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad joined about 30 other heads of state at the emotional farewell to the charismatic but controversial leader of the oil-rich South American country.
The funeral was held at a chapel in a military academy in the capital where the body of the 58-year-old has been lying in state. The streets outside took on a holiday atmosphere, with military bands launching into marches and an expanse of supporters wearing the red of Mr Chávez’s socialist party. Street traders sold paper replicas of the presidential sash, which many mourners slipped over their shoulders.
Those at the front of the funeral queue had been waiting for their prime position since 5am the previous morning. “I haven’t slept, but that’s not important”, said José Monte, a Caracas native 30 hours into his wait to see the president lying in state.
“We won’t leave until we’ve seen our commander, this is our way of showing our love”.
The exhausted mourners, many of whom sheltered beneath parasols to escape the sun’s intense heat, were kept animated by enormous television screens showing state television channel VTV as it broadcast messages of support from throughout Venezuela.
Speaking over loudspeakers, grieving chavistas worked themselves into tearful frenzies as they talked of their personal grief at the loss of their “commandante eternal” (eternal commander).
Janeiro Fuentes, who had been camping in the grounds of the military academy since the president’s death was announced on Tuesday, had no intention of leaving until his leader had been laid to rest. “I’ll be here as long as necessary”, he said, “much of my town came here to show our support, it’s an important event for us”.
The crowd cheered loudly as each of the international delegations from more than 50 countries passed by the mourners as they made their way to the state funeral ceremony.
Interim president and probable socialist presidential candidate Nicolas Maduro conducted the prayers at the funeral, laying a replica sword of Simon Bolívar, the Venezuelan liberator of much of South America, on top of the late-president’s coffin while the national anthem was played.
Most controversially, from an American and allied perspective, was the sight of Iranian president Mr Ahmadinejad receiving a long standing ovation as he was called forward for his turn to stand beside the coffin. Mr Ahmadinejad caused anger days before among the Muslim clerics of his own country when he stated that Mr Chávez would be “resurrected alongside Jesus Christ”. The streets of Caracas were empty yesterday morning, as the government had called a day of mourning.
Venezuela is doing all it can to immortalise Mr Chávez in death. Hours before the funeral itself, the government announced that the late-president was to be embalmed, and to remain in the military academy “for seven more days at least”.
More than two million people have filed past his body, with the queue stretching for miles.