Preparations for Hugo Chavez's state funeral underway in Venezuela

Jim WyssMiami Herald,Daniel ChangMiami Herald

Supporters of fallen leader Hugo Chávez began to gather at the Military Hospital near downtown Caracas Wednesday morning, as they prepared to follow his funeral carriage on a winding farewell procession through the capital city. Chávez’s body will be taken to the Military Academy — an institution that defined his life — until his state funeral on Friday.

Throngs of people watched, waved banners and sang the national anthem as the funeral carriage emerged from the hospital, carrying Chávez ‘s casket draped in the Venezuelan flag and crowned with a wreath in the national colors of yellow, blue and red.

The approximately 8-mile-long procession will end at the national Military Academy, where Chávez’s body will lay in state until the funeral on Friday. It is unclear if the viewing will be open or closed casket, but the government has invited the nation to visit Chávez’s coffin at the Military Academy.

Many supporters are expected to pay their last respects to the fiery leader.

Victor Davila, 33, a chef, draped the national flag over his shoulders as he watched the procession.

“He could always draw a crowd,’’ Davila said as he surveyed the crowd outside the hospital. “There are millions of us here.’’

Pedro Liendo, 46, a sociologist, said the nation will mourn Chávez’s loss, but that the president had left very clear marching orders.

"This revolution had to continue with or without him,'' Liendo said.

He also had a warning for those in the opposition who would seek to capitalize on Chávez’s death.

"There are provacateurs out there who want to destabilize the country,’’ Liendo said, “but we're not going to let them.''

While a small crowd stood vigil outside the hospital and at public plazas, the streets of Caracas were largely desolate overnight amid fears that the uncertainty might spark violence. But authorities did not report any major incidents.

As morning broke, people huddled around newsstands, snapping up the special editions that marked Chávez’s death.

“The country cries for Chávez,” blared a headline from Ultimas Noticias.

Tomas Saldivia, 46, was sitting on a curb holding his head. He said it had been a rough night, gathering with family members to mourn the president who led this country for 14 years. Saldivia said he would always be grateful to the administration for paying the hospital bills for his daughter who died of cancer at 19.

“We lost a leader,” he said. “We have to continue the revolution, like he asked us to, but this hurts.”

Others wonder what will come next for the country.

By law, new elections should be held within 30 days and the administration is rallying around Vice President Nicolás Maduro, who had Chávez’s full backing.

But Maduro, a one-time union organizer and longtime foreign minister, has yet to win over the people.

“If things weren’t calm here with Chávez, I think it’s going to be even worse with Maduro,” said Tatiana Carrero, a 39-year-old graphic designer. “All I’m hoping now is that whatever comes next isn’t worse than what we had.”

Carrero said she would support Henrique Capriles, the 40-year-old governor of Miranda State, who lost to Chávez in October’s presidential race.

While the coalition of opposition parties known as the MUD has not yet named its candidate, many expect the group will select Capriles.

Before elections, though, the nation will grieve.

The government has declared seven days of mourning, and schools are closed through the week.

Leaders from around the world have begun to arrive in Venezuela for the funeral.

Argentina’s President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Uruguay’s José Mujica traveled overnight. Bolivian President Evo Morales, a longtime Chávez ally, arrived this morning.

“We know that it has been a night of difficult emotions,” Foreign Minister Elías Jaua told local TV reporters as he greeted Morales at the airport. “We still haven’t assimilated the deep pain that’s being caused by the physical departure of our president, Hugo Chávez.”

Chávez had been battling cancer since at least June 2011, but the administration never said what type of cancer he had or what organs were affected. The president had been in seclusion for almost three months.

As government officials prepare for the funeral, Maduro on Tuesday suggested that state enemies may have “infected” Chávez with his illness.

The escalating rhetoric between Chávez’s successors and the opposition could keep the country on edge for months.

Dougglys Blanco, 21, an administrative assistant, said she worried for the future given the uncertainty caused by Chávez’s death .

“I don’t know what’s going to happen to my country now,” Blanco said. “We just have to hope for the best.”

For 14 years, Chávez has led Venezuela. He survived four elections, a coup and a recall attempt as he became one of Latin America’s most charismatic, influential and controversial leaders.

But on Tuesday, the socialist firebrand lost his long-running battle with cancer at the age of 58.

The former tank commander died in Venezuela’s Military Hospital, just a few months after winning a fourth presidential term that would have kept him in office until 2019.

His passing puts Maduro at the helm of Latin America’s fifth-largest economy until new elections can be scheduled within 30 days.

It also leaves a power vacuum in this nation of 27 million — where Chávez had been the face and force of his administration since 1999.

Chávez had been fighting an undisclosed form of cancer, and had undergone four rounds of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. His last round of treatment began Dec. 10, when he was hustled onto an airplane bound for Cuba.

It was the last time he would be seen in public or heard from. The surgery was plagued with problems and led to a respiratory infection, which required a tracheotomy that made it difficult for the once-verbose leader to speak.

Using the nation’s vast oil wealth to push through socialist reforms and build a coalition of like-minded leaders in Latin America, Chávez became a darling of the global left and beloved by many of the nation’s poorest. As he built homes, hospitals and schools, his “21st Century Socialism” dramatically reduced the income gap.

But as his power grew, so did the abuses. His administration expropriated thousands of acres of land and hundreds of companies, drawing fire from the business class and the traditional ruling elite. Corruption and impunity plagued his administration. Venezuela became one of the most dangerous countries in the hemisphere, beset by power outages and food shortages.

Despite the problems, Chávez’s popularity rarely waned, and he won the Oct. 7 presidential race with 55 percent of the vote and an 11-point margin over his nearest rival.

“Hugo Chávez will be remembered as an extraordinary politician and as a failed leader,” Venezuelan columnist and the nation’s former trade minister, Moisés Naím, told The Miami Herald. “Sadly, his legacy will not reflect any of the positive and lasting transformations that could have been achieved with the political hegemony and financial resources that he enjoyed. The Venezuela he leaves behind is politically polarized, economically weak, and terrifyingly murderous. But mostly it is poorer, more unjust and vastly more corrupt than what it was before Hugo Chávez ruled it.”

Jim Wyss and Daniel Chang
The Miami Herald