Nicolas Maduro was sworn in as Venezuela’s acting president hours after eulogizing his mentor Hugo Chavez in a fiery and tearful state funeral that drew leaders and celebrity activists from around the world.
Maduro, after being fitted with the presidential sash last night during a special session of congress boycotted by members of the opposition, vowed to continue Chavez’s fight on behalf of the poor and against the U.S. “empire.” The former bus driver said the government has nothing to fear from elections that would take place “immediately,” as required by law.
“I don’t assume this office out of personal ambition,” said Maduro, who Chavez named his political heir before undergoing a fourth surgery for cancer in December. “I never wanted to become president. I’m doing it to honor his legacy.”
The ceremony at the national assembly last night capped a marathon day in which more than 20 heads of state, including Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Cuba’s Raul Castro, bid farewell to Chavez, who died March 5 after a two-year illness. Mourners including Rev. Jesse Jackson and actor Sean Penn shouted “Chavez didn’t die” as they listened to llanero music of the president’s youth and a sword belonging to 19th century liberator Simon Bolivar was placed on a flag-draped coffin.
Maduro, in a 32-minute sermon at Chavez’s funeral, recalled a December meeting in Cuba when a weakened Chavez asked his close aides for help drafting a final message to his followers.
“We didn’t fulfill his order, we couldn’t, it was impossible,” Maduro said during the speech in which he alternately held back tears and shouted threats against Chavez’s foes. “The entire life of our comandante has been a testament to his word, his passion, his actions, his work, his people.”
Outside the military academy in Caracas where the memorial was taking place, teary-eyed mothers with newborns and civilian militia members armed by Chavez stood in a three-kilometer-long line under a blazing midday sun to catch a last glimpse of their beloved leader. They’ll have plenty of time to do so, after the government said that it was embalming Chavez’s body for permanent display at a museum being built to honor his legacy.
“I will stay here until I see him,” said Nelly Pedrique, a 55-year-old cleaning lady. “I need to say goodbye because he was a good man.”
Chavez was laid to rest in an army uniform wearing the trademark red beret that he used while leading a failed 1992 military coup that catapulted him to fame.
Supporters, most of them wearing the red shirts of Chavez’s 21st century socialist revolution, vowed to respect their leader’s wishes and rally behind Maduro, his longtime foreign minister.
Maduro, in his first act after taking office, named Science and Technology Minister Jorge Arreaza as his vice president. He administered the oath to Arreaza, who is also Chavez’s son-in-law, at a separate ceremony held before Chavez’s corpse.
With Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa looking on and pro-government lawmakers cheering, Maduro in his inaugural speech goaded the opposition, saying they’d be making a mistake by failing to present a candidate in the upcoming election.
Venezuela’s electoral council in the coming hours is expected to set the date for the vote, which the constitution requires must be held within 30 days of the president’s death.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski denounced as “fraud” a Supreme Court ruling allowing Maduro to serve as caretaker while campaigning for the presidency, which he said violates article 229 of the nation’s charter. He said he’d decide in the coming hours whether to run for the presidency.
“Nicolas, the people didn’t elect you,” Capriles, who lost to Chavez by 11 percentage points in October, said in televised comments yesterday. “They didn’t vote for you, kid.”
Maduro is likely to win the election with 46 percent of the vote compared with 34 percent for Capriles, according to a poll taken by Caracas-based Datanalisis from Jan. 31 to Feb. 20. The poll’s margin of error was 2.4 percentage points.
Maduro, who hours before Chavez’s death suggested that the U.S. may have poisoned the president, struck a more moderate tone at yesterday’s memorial. He thanked President Barack Obama for sending a delegation that included Rep. Gregory Meeks, a New York Democrat, and retired congressman William Delahunt of Massachusetts. The U.S. hasn’t had an ambassador in Caracas since Chavez expelled envoy Patrick Duddy in 2008.
“We love the people of the United State and we have historic ties to its unions, businessmen and intellectuals,” Maduro said in his inaugural speech. “Sooner rather than later the elites that govern the U.S. will have to learn to respect the popular insurrections of South America.”
Earlier, civil rights leader Jackson praised Chavez and Maduro, saying that political differences between the two countries shouldn’t get in the way of historic ties shaped by Venezuela’s export of oil and baseball players to the U.S.
“Hugo fed the hungry. He lifted the poor. He raised their hopes. He helped them realize their dreams,” said Jackson. “And so today we do mourn because we lost a lot. But we have a lot left: a stable government, an orderly transition.”
Authorities still haven’t said what type of cancer Chavez was suffering from, 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 the 58-year-old former paratrooper mouthed a desire not to die moments before succumbing to a heart attack. An official in the Information Ministry, who asked not to be identified because of internal policy, declined to comment on the AP report.
Maduro, whom Chavez endorsed before undergoing surgery in Cuba for the last time in December, has sought to project unity in frequent televised appearances. He was sworn into office last night by National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, a rival within the Chavismo movement who some constitutional experts say should assume as a caretaker until Chavez’s successor is chosen.
He also expressed admiration and respect for the armed forces, who in turn affirmed their loyalty to the Chavismo movement. Unlike Chavez, a former tank commander, Maduro has never served in the military.
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.
The country is likely to contract in the first quarter of the year, and inflation could rise to 33 percent, Bank of America said in a report yesterday.
Venezuela’s dollar-denominated bonds, which are rated four levels below investment grade by Standard & Poor’s, have rallied 22 percent over the past year. The yield on the benchmark 9.25 percent bonds due in 2027 fell 12 basis points yesterday to 9.30 percent.