Chavez’s populist machine honors his legacy

The coffin of Hugo Chavez was driven through the streets of Caracas on Wednesday after leaving a military hospital.
Jorge Dan Lopez/Reuters
The coffin of Hugo Chavez was driven through the streets of Caracas on Wednesday after leaving a military hospital.

CARACAS — A day after Hugo Chavez’s death, the populist government that was built around his outsized persona began to pay homage on Wednesday as Venezuelans wondered what would come next after his 14 years in office.

The body of the president, who was 58 and had been battling cancer for about two years, was taken to the Venezuelan Military Academy here in the capital to lie in state for three days. The funeral will take place Friday with dignitaries from across the world in attendance.

The government’s vast state television apparatus played Chavez’s speeches and ran footage of him hugging his followers, while government newspapers pledged that even in death he remained the guiding light of this country of 29 million people.


‘‘Chavez hasn’t died,’’ said a headline in Vea, a leading state newspaper. ‘‘The commander president lives in the Bolivarian Revolution.’’

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The Bolivarian Revolution was what Chavez called Venezuela’s socialist movement, in honor of his idol, 19th century Venezuelan independence leader Simon Bolivar.

The funeral procession began in the late morning, with a coffin draped in Venezuela’s flag transported slowly from the hospital where Chavez spent his last days to the military academy where Chavez began adulthood. People dressed in black wailed in grief as the procession passed by.

As mourners took to the streets for a second day, the message many of them repeated was that they would continue to follow Chavez’s path — to ensure that Venezuela remained a socialist state. His followers remained keenly aware that their leader, in his last speech on Dec. 8, directed Venezuelans to vote for Vice President Nicolas Maduro should his presidency be cut short.

Three days later, on Dec. 11, Chavez underwent a fourth cancer surgery in Havana. He never recovered and never again appeared publicly before the adoring crowds that had once hung on his every word. Chavez died at a military hospital here at 4:25 p.m. Tuesday, two weeks after arriving from Cuba in the middle of the night.


Outside the hospital, where groups of Chavists — as the late president’s followers call themselves —had gathered for vigils, Marlenis Vanegar, 75, said she prayed for Chavez to recover.

‘‘He left a legacy for us,’’ she said. ‘‘He awoke a people. Don’t anyone think that this revolution will now be lost. We will continue with the candidate that he left for us.’’

The death of the leader seemed, at least for the moment, to bring a sense of calm to Venezuela as the volume was turned down on the political vitriol from government officials and Chavez’s opponents that had characterized the political discourse in recent days.

‘‘In the immense pain of this historic tragedy that has affected our fatherland, we call on all the compatriots to be vigilant for peace, love, respect and tranquility,’’ Maduro said on national television. ‘‘We ask our people to channel this pain into peace.’’

Henrique Capriles, 40, the opposition’s leading candidate and the man expected to challenge Maduro for the presidency in a future election, said that now was ‘‘not the time to highlight what separates us.’’


Capriles urged Venezuelans not to feel anxious or frightened about the uncertainty in the country. ‘‘This is not the hour for differences,’’ he said. ‘‘It is the hour for union. It is the hour for peace.’’

Still, as Chavez lay in agony in recent days, it had begun to appear as if an unofficial campaign had already begun, with Maduro and Capriles directing personal attacks at each other.

In a tense political environment, much of the country was talking about what would come after Chavez’s death.