Venezuela will embalm Hugo Chavez’s body for display as a permanent tribute to the socialist revolutionary whose death has led to an outpouring of grief among his followers.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro made the announcement after an estimated 2 million mourners gathered at a military academy in Caracas where Chavez’s body has been laying in state since yesterday after he died March 5 following a two-year battle with cancer. To accommodate the throngs, the viewing period will be extended by a week after tomorrow’s funeral being attended by more than 30 heads of state, Maduro said.
“Just like Ho Chi Minh, like Lenin, like Mao Zedong the body of our comandante-in-chief will remain embalmed in the Museum of the Revolution in a special glass urn so our people can have him there forever,” Maduro said in televised comments.
Mothers with babies, senior citizens in wheelchairs and saluting army cadets were among those who filed past Chavez’s flag-draped, glass-topped coffin. Others, some of them waiting more than 12 hours, gave up amid blazing sun in the Venezuelan capital.
Chavez was dressed in an army uniform wearing his trademark red beret that he used while leading a 1992 military coup that catapulted him to fame, according to mourners.
Supporters, most of them wearing the red shirts of Chavez’s 21st century socialist revolution, vowed to respect their leader’s wishes and support Maduro in an election that is expected to be called within 30 days.
“There’s no doubt our fight continues with Maduro as the leader,” said Quisquella Paez, who was escaping from the blazing midday sun with her one-month-old baby, Victor.
Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said today that 33 heads of state are expected to attend the funeral, including Cuba’s Raul Castro and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who in a statement likened Chavez to Jesus Christ.
Nations as far away as Saudi Arabia and Nigeria declared a period of national mourning, Jaua said, while at Venezuelan embassies across Latin America supporters laid flowers and held vigils. Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner are among allies in Latin America who’ve already arrived in Caracas and attended the wake.
Congressman Gregory Meeks will attend in a U.S. delegation that will also include Charge d’Affaires James Derham, the New York Democrat said in a statement. The U.S. has been without an ambassador to Caracas since Chavez expelled envoy Patrick Duddy in 2008.
Authorities still haven’t said what type of cancer Chavez had developed, though some details of his final moments have emerged.
General Jose Ornella, the head of the presidential guard, told The Associated Press that he was with Chavez when he mouthed a desire not to die moments before suffering a heart attack.
An official in the Information Ministry, who asked not to be identified because of internal policy, said he couldn’t immediately comment on the AP report.
Even as Venezuela prepares for tomorrow’s funeral, the battle to fill the void left by Chavez was getting under way. According to Venezuela’s constitution, an election to choose Chavez’s successor must be called within 30 days though so far authorities haven’t revealed their plans for the political transition.
Maduro, who Chavez endorsed before undergoing surgery in Cuba for the last time in December, sought to project unity. At the wake yesterday he stood for a moment of silence next to Chavez’s coffin with National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello.
The armed forces also appeared to be lining up behind Maduro, who unlike Chavez, a former tank commander, doesn’t have any military experience.
“Now, more than ever, the Venezuelan people and armed forces are united to complete Chavez’s mission, which is to make Maduro the next Venezuelan president,” Defense Minister David Molero said yesterday. “The armed forces will never raise its weapons against the people again.”
Still, with the economy reeling from 23 percent inflation and an overvalued currency that have eroded incomes and exacerbated food shortages, Maduro has his work cut out for him.
“Unity is one thing when Chavez is alive, another when he’s dead,” said retired Captain William Biancucci, now a businessman, who traveled from the western city of San Cristobal to pay his respects. “Maduro is going to have to show that he can continue Chavez’s plan, perhaps with more efficiency.”
Opposition parties may nominate Miranda state Governor Henrique Capriles Radonski as their candidate to compete in the snap election. While a final decision won’t be made until after Chavez’s funeral, “Capriles is the only name that’s on the table,” Ramon Jose Medina, deputy leader of the opposition alliance, said yesterday in a phone interview after a full day of meetings with party members.
Capriles lost to Chavez by 11 percentage points in October’s presidential election.
Venezuela’s dollar-denominated bonds, which are rated four levels below investment grade by Standard & Poor’s, have rallied 25 percent over the past year, swelling their return to 692 percent since Chavez’s inauguration in 1999.
They fell for a third day today, with the yield on 9.25 percent bonds due in September 2027 climbing 20 basis points to 9.46 percent at 5:00 p.m. in New York, the highest since Dec. 5. The price fell 1.59 cents to 98.32 cents on the dollar, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Barclays Plc today cut its rating on Venezuela debt to neutral from overweight because of uncertainty “that the government might not strictly follow” the constitution, analysts Alejandro Grisanti and Donato Guarino said today in an e-mailed report.