At least two dozen heads of state are attending Hugo Chavez’s funeral during an outpouring of grief for the charismatic but divisive Venezuelan leader.
Chavez died on Tuesday at age 58 after a two-year battle with cancer, devastating millions of mostly poor supporters who loved him for putting the country’s vast oil wealth at their service, but giving hope to opponents who denounced him as a dictator.
Huge crowds of “Chavistas”, many carrying his picture or wearing t-shirts bearing the image of his eyes, have swamped the plazas around a military academy where his coffin was carried after being paraded through the streets.
“A thousand thanks for the posthumous tributes to a man who fought for world peace, for unity in Latin America and the Caribbean, and for the democratisation of global institutions,” Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said.
“The show of love for the president has been incredible.”
Chavez’s body is to be embalmed and shown “for eternity” at a military museum – similar to how communist leaders Lenin, Stalin and Mao were treated after their deaths.
His remains are to lie in state for an extra seven days to accommodate the millions of Venezuelans who still want to pay their last respects to a man who will be remembered as one of the world’s most colorful and controversial populist leaders.
“All these measures are being taken so that the people can be with their leader forever,” Chavez’s preferred successor and acting president, Nicolas Maduro, said. Maduro will be sworn in as caretaker president after the funeral on Friday.
More than 2 million people have so far filed past Chavez’s coffin behind a red rope at a grandiose military academy, many sobbing, some saluting or crossing themselves.
Among the leaders gathering in Caracas were close allies such as Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, Brazil’s current and former leaders, Dilma Rousseff and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and Cuban President Raul Castro.
“Most importantly, he left undefeated,” Castro said, referring to Chavez’s four presidential election wins, among a string of other ballot victories in his 14-year rule.
“He was invincible. He left victorious and no one can take that away. It is fixed in history.”
A government source said Chavez slipped into a coma on Monday before dying the following day of respiratory failure.
The cancer had spread to his lungs, the source added.
Chavez never said what type of cancer he was suffering, and chose to be mainly treated in Cuba for privacy.