CARACAS — Thousands of people waited for hours Thursday to pay a moment of respect to the late president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, dressed in his iconic red beret and green military uniform.
The lines, steeped in loyalty and grief, started Wednesday and stretched through the night at a military academy Chavez attended. He will lie in state until his funeral on Friday.
Many saluted the president’s remains. Others crossed themselves. Government television broadcast the endless passage of mourners. One elderly woman beat her breast and nearly fainted. Parents and guards in dark suits picked up small children to give them a look.
“He had his beret on, his red beret, and he looked as if he were sleeping,’’ said Luis Cabrera Aguirre, a retired rear admiral who served as an adviser to Chavez. He said Chavez’s head and torso were visible through a panel of glass at the coffin’s upper half. The closed lower half was draped with the Venezuelan flag. Cabrera Aguirre said Chavez’s face and especially his neck appeared swollen or puffy but that otherwise, ‘‘he looked just like he did in life.’’
Chavez, nearly omnipresent here in his 14-year rule, was not seen in Venezuela since leaving for Cuba for his fourth and last cancer surgery on Dec. 11. Even after the announcement of his return, in a predawn flight on Feb. 18, he remained out of sight, while officials said he continued treatment at a Caracas military hospital. His death was announced Tuesday. He was 58 years old.
Conflicting accounts of his final days were beginning to emerge.
On Thursday, Reuters reported that a government source said Chavez’s health deteriorated rapidly after he held a bedside meeting with ministers over the weekend. The source said that, with the cancer having spread to his lungs, Chavez had fallen into a coma Monday and that he died the next day of respiratory failure.
The head of Venezuela’s presidential guard, General Jose Ornella, told the Associated Press Chavez died of a major heart attack. Ornella said he was with Chavez at the moment of his death and among his final words were, ‘‘I don’t want to die. Please don’t let me die.’’ The general added, “because he loved his country, he sacrificed himself for his country.’’
“He couldn’t speak, but he said it with his lips,’’ Ornella said.
Over Chavez’s final weeks, the opposition clamored for him to make an appearance, and some of his supporters began to question why he was unable to show himself.
Despite a rocky economic record and strings of broken or half-filled promises during his 14 years in office, the fundamental legacy of Chavez was intangible: He has changed the way Venezuelans think about themselves and their country.
The procession Wednesday stretched for miles.
‘‘Chavez opened our eyes,’’ said Carlos Perez, 58, a cookie salesman. ‘‘We used to be stepped on. We felt humiliated.’’
Conditions for the poor have improved, and their ranks have shrunk. Government programs have boosted access to low-cost food and health care, though many of those programs are plagued by inefficiencies.
But Chavez presided over a divided country. He mercilessly taunted and insulted those who disagreed with him.
A vote must be called within 30 days. Vice President Nicolas Maduro is acting president and appears likely to face a Chavez rival, Henrique Capriles.