A day of tears after Chavez death in Venezuela

Thursday - 3/7/2013, 3:18am EST

PAUL HAVEN
Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- By the hundreds of thousands, Hugo Chavez's tearful supporters carried their dead president through streets still plastered with his smiling image, an epic farewell to a larger-than-life leader remembered simply as "our commander."

In a display of raw, and at times, unruly emotion, generations of Venezuelans, many dressed in the red of Chavez's socialist party, filled Caracas' streets Wednesday to remember the man who dominated their country for 14 years before succumbing to cancer.

Chavez's flag-draped coffin floated over hundreds of thousands of supporters as it made its way atop an open hearse on a seven-hour journey to a military academy in the capital. Mourners followed the lead of a grim drum major, with some shouting out "nuestro comandante" as the coffin passed.

At the academy, Chavez's family and close advisers, as well as the presidents of Argentina, Bolivia and Uruguay, attended a funeral Mass before the president's open casket. Later, the public slowly filed past in a show of respect expected to go on late into the night.

But even amid the outpouring of grief, questions about the country's future could not be put off for long, with worries amplified by the government's lack of regard for the letter of the constitution and the military's eagerness to choose political sides.

Vice President Nicolas Maduro, the late president's hand-picked successor, and Bolivian President Evo Morales, one of his staunchest allies, mingled with the crowd, at one point falling to the ground in the jostle of bodies pushing in every direction. Military officers and Cabinet members ringed the president's coffin, stone-faced with grief.

Other mourners pumped their fists and held aloft images of the late president, amid countless waving yellow, blue and red Venezuelan flags.

"The fight goes on! Chavez lives!" the mourners shouted in unison, many through eyes red from crying late into the night.

The head of Venezuela's presidential guard, Gen. Jose Ornella, told The Associated Press late Wednesday that Chavez died of a massive heart attack after great suffering.

Ornella said that he was with Chavez at the moment of his death Tuesday, and that the socialist president, though he couldn't speak aloud, mouthed the words: "I don't want to die. Please don't let me die."

Chavez's bereaved mother, Elena Frias de Chavez, leaned against her son's casket, while a priest read a prayer before the procession left the military hospital where Chavez died Tuesday at age 58. His funeral is scheduled for Friday.

People who passed by the glass-topped coffin said Chavez's body was clad in the presidential sash and the military uniform and red beret of his days as a paratrooper.

Ricardo Tria, a social worker, said he waited nearly four hours to pass by the casket. Chavez looked "asleep, quiet, serious," he said.

"I feel so much pain. So much pain," said Yamile Gil, a 38-year-old housewife. "We never wanted to see our president like this. We will always love him."

Others who bitterly opposed Chavez's take-no-prisoners brand of socialism said they were sorry about his death, but hopeful it would usher in a less confrontational, more business-friendly era in this major oil-producing country. Under his leadership, the state expropriated key industries, raised taxes on the rich and forced many opponents into exile.

"I am not happy that he has died, but I can't be sad either," said Delia Ramirez, a 32-year-old accountant who stayed away from the procession. "This man sowed hatred and division among Venezuelans."

Even as Chavistas said their goodbyes, a sense of foreboding gripped the country as it awaited word on what might come next. Many Venezuelans, fearful of possible violence, stocked up on food and fuel as the country pondered whether the former paratrooper's socialist agenda would survive him, and for how long.

The 1999 constitution that Chavez himself pushed through mandates that elections be called within 30 days, but Chavez's top lieutenants have often improvised with the law.

The charter clearly states that the speaker of the National Assembly, in this case Diosdado Cabello, should become interim president if a head of state is forced to leave office within three years of his election. Chavez was re-elected only in October.

But Chavez anointed Maduro for that role, and the vice president has assumed the mantle even as the government announced he would represent the ruling socialist party in the presidential vote.

Some took to Twitter to denounce the move, citing Article 233 of the constitution, which establishes Cabello as the rightful president.