Chavez's body brought 'home' to military academy

Mile-long line of Venezuelans file past coffin of President Chavez

Associated Press
Chavez's body brought 'home' to military academy
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In this photo released by Miraflores Press Office, a woman pays her respects as she files past the glass-topped casket containing the remains of Venezuela's late President Hugo Chavez lying in state at the military academy in Caracas, Thursday, March 7, 2013. Chavez died of a massive heart attack Tuesday after great suffering and inaudibly mouthed his desire to live, the head of Venezuela's presidential guard said late Wednesday. (AP Photo/Miraflores Presidential Press Office)

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- They filed past all night and into the morning, a line of mourners a mile (more than a kilometer) long hoping for one final glimpse of Hugo Chavez. While Venezuela remains deeply divided over the country's future, the multitudes weeping and crossing themselves as they reached the president's coffin early Thursday were united in grief and admiration for a man many considered a father figure.

Cannon boomed a salute each hour, the only interruption to what seemed an endless procession as hundreds of thousands filed past, with countless more still to come.

"I waited 10 hours to see him, but I am very happy, proud to have seen my comandante," said 46-year-old Yudeth Hurtado, who was sobbing. "He is planted in our heart."

In a nod to the insecurity that plagues this country, mourners had to submit to a pat down, pass through a metal detector and remove the batteries from their mobile phones upon entering the military academy where Chavez is lying in state until his funeral Friday.

Several Latin American leaders have already arrived for the funeral, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has announced he, too, will attend.

At the military academy, Chavez lay in a glass-covered coffin wearing his olive-green military uniform and red beret.

As they reached the coffin, many placed a hand on their heart or saluted. Some held up children so they could see Chavez's face.

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

As a band played the anthem of his first battalion, Chavez's coffin was displayed at the academy after an emotion-drenched procession through Caracas on Wednesday. Generations of Venezuelans, many dressed in the red of Chavez's socialist party, filled the capital's streets to remember the man who dominated their country for 14 years before succumbing Tuesday afternoon after a fight with cancer.

The coffin was carried through the crowds atop an open hearse on an eight-kilometer (five-mile) journey that wound through the city's north and southeast, into many of the poorer neighborhoods where Chavez drew his political strength.

At the academy, Chavez's family and close advisers, as well as the presidents of Argentina, Bolivia and Uruguay, attended a funeral Mass around the casket.

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.

"He couldn't speak but he said it with his lips ... 'I don't want to die. Please don't let me die,' because he loved his country, he sacrificed himself for his country," said Ornella, who said he was with the socialist president at the moment of his death Tuesday.

Set against the outpouring of grief was near-total official silence on where Venezuela is heading next, including when the election will take place. Even the exact time and place of Chavez's funeral Friday had not been announced, nor where he will be laid to rest.

While much of this country was immersed in collective grief, millions who bitterly opposed Chavez's take-no-prisoners brand of socialism were staying away from the mourning crowds, quietly hoping Chavez's death would usher in a less confrontational, more business-friendly era in this major oil-producing country.

Opponents already have been stepping up criticism of the government's questionable moves after Chavez's death, including naming Vice President Nicolas Maduro, Chavez's hand-picked successor, as acting president in apparent violation of the constitution.

The 1999 constitution that Chavez himself pushed through mandates that an election be called within 30 days to replace a president, but Chavez's top lieutenants have often applied a flexible interpretation of that law.

The charter 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 has named him as the ruling socialist party's candidate in the presidential vote.

The military also appears to be showing firm support for Maduro despite a constitutional mandate that it play no role in politics. In a tweet late Tuesday, state television said the defense minister, Adm. Diego Molero, had pledged military support for Maduro's candidacy against likely opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, raising concern among critics about the fairness of the vote.

Capriles, the 40-year-old governor of Miranda state who lost to Chavez in October, was conciliatory in a televised address after the president's death, but other opposition leaders were more critical of the military stance.

Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, executive secretary of the opposition coalition, called the defense minister's declarations "unacceptable" as well as "false, unconstitutional."

Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American Program at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said Maduro should win the upcoming presidential vote, even if he won't be able to harness Chavez's charisma.

"There's really no one who can step into those shoes," she said.

In addition to spiraling crime and shortages of basic goods, the next administration must also control a public debt that has quadrupled to $102 billion since Chavez took office in 1999, despite Venezuela's booming oil exports

Maduro's Jekyll-and-Hyde-like behavior Tuesday has stoked worries about a future government.

He used a speech just before Chavez's death to lash out at the United States and internal opponents he accused of plotting to destabilize the government. He pointed to shadowy forces as being behind the president's cancer and expelled two American military attaches he charged with spying.

Then, in a televised appearance to announce the death, a shaken and somber Maduro called for peace, love and reconciliation among all Venezuelans.

Venezuela and the United States have a complicated relationship, with Chavez's enemy to the north remaining the top buyer of Venezuelan oil. But Chavez's inner circle has long claimed the United States was behind a failed 2002 attempt to overthrow him, and he has frequently used anti-American rhetoric to stir up support. Venezuela has been without a U.S. ambassador since July 2010 and expelled a U.S. military officer in 2006.

In Washington, senior Obama administration officials said Wednesday they hoped to rebuild the U.S.-Venezuelan relationship, but acknowledged that a quick rapprochement was unlikely given the Latin American country's impending presidential election.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly on the matter, expressed displeasure with the expulsion of the two U.S. military officials by Venezuela and Maduro's accusations that the U.S. was somehow responsible for Chavez's cancer.

"Yesterday's first press conference was not encouraging," a senior official said. "It disappointed us."

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Associated Press writers Christopher Toothaker, Jorge Rueda and Fabiola Sanchez in Caracas and Bradley Klapper in Salt Lake City, Utah, contributed to this report.

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Paul Haven on Twitter: www.twitter.com/paulhaven

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