Tearful Chavez State Funeral Draws Sean Penn, Ahmadinejad

Allies of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez paid their final respects to the firebrand socialist leader at a state funeral that marked the emotional high point of a week of tributes preceding a snap election to choose his successor.

Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Cuba’s Raul Castro were among more than 20 world leaders bidding farewell to Chavez, who died March 5 after a long battle with cancer. 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 his hero, 19th century liberator Simon Bolivar, was placed on a flag-draped coffin.

“Never in 200 years have they lied so much about a man,” Vice President Nicolas Maduro said in a 32-minute sermon in which he recalled a December meeting in Cuba when a weakened Chavez asked for help drafting a final message to his followers.

His close aides refused.

“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.”

Long Lines

Outside the military academy in Caracas where the memorial was taking place, tear-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,” Nelly Pedrique, a 55-year-old cleaning lady, said while holding back tears. “It doesn’t matter if its tomorrow or Sunday. 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. His mother, Elena Frias, sat next to the coffin in tears.

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. The former bus driver and union leader will be sworn in today as acting President and charged with calling elections.

Ahmadinejad, Lukashenko

Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said that more than 30 heads of state have arrived to Caracas in the past 24 hours to pay their respects to Chavez and console his family. Among those who stayed for the funeral was Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko, who with his son and Ahmadinejad stood alongside Chavez’s casket in one of several military honor guard tributes.

“To us the loss of President Chavez is very painful because we have lost an endearing friend and a fair and revolutionary leader,” Ahmadinejad said upon arrival in Caracas. “To me, he was a very grand personality and a very endearing brother and friend.”

Nations as far away as Saudi Arabia and Nigeria declared a period of national mourning, Jaua said. In a sign of how Chavez transformed Latin America’s politics during his 14 years in power, when he pushed the region’s governments to turn their back on the U.S., supporters held vigils at Venezuelan embassies in Santiago, Lima, Buenos Aires and other capitals.

Maduro, 50, 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.

“Hugo fed the hungry. He lifted the poor. He raised their hopes. He helped them realize their dreams,” said Jackson, one of several clergy honoring Chavez. “And so today we do mourn because we lost a lot. But we have a lot left: a stable government, an orderly transition.”

Last Words

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 Sworn In

Even as Venezuela mourns, the battle to fill the void left by Chavez was getting under way.

Maduro will be sworn in as acting President today at 7:00 p.m. Caracas time at the same military academy where Chavez lays in state. Opposition lawmakers said they’ll boycott the ceremony, which they’ve denounced as a campaign event.

Maduro, whom Chavez endorsed before undergoing surgery in Cuba for the last time in December, has sought to project unity in frequent televised appearances. At the wake on March 6 he stood for a moment of silence next to Chavez’s coffin with 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.

“Chavez held the office, and it’s the Vice President who will assume as acting President and call for elections. It’s not true that it should be me,” Cabello said yesterday on state television. “We’re going to complete Chavez’s mandate how he said it should be done.”

Loyal Military

The armed forces also affirmed their loyalty to Maduro, who unlike Chavez, a former tank commander, doesn’t have any military training.

Still, with the economy reeling from 23 percent inflation and an overvalued currency that have eroded incomes and exacerbated food shortages, the 50-year-old former union leader and foreign minister has his work cut out for him.

The country is likely to fall into a recession in the first quarter of the year, and inflation could rise to 33 percent, Bank of America said today.

“Unity is one thing when Chavez is alive, another when he’s dead,” said retired Captain William Biancucci, who fought alongside Chavez in the 1992 coup and traveled from the western city of San Cristobal to pay his last respects. “Maduro is going to have to show that he can continue Chavez’s plan, perhaps with more efficiency.”

Opposition parties are likely to nominate Miranda state Governor Henrique Capriles Radonski as their candidate to compete in the snap election. Capriles lost to Chavez by 11 percentage points in October’s presidential election.

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.

“Chavez, we promise to vote for Maduro,” a group of supporters chanted before the funeral.

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, swelling their return to 692 percent since Chavez’s inauguration in 1999. The yield on the benchmark 9.25 percent bonds due in 2027 fell 13 basis points to 9.33 percent today at 2:21 p.m. in New York.

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