World

Chavez's body brought 'home'
to military academy

Hugo Chavez has been carried back to the military academy where he started his army career, his flag-draped coffin lying in state in the echoing halls until Friday's funeral.

As a band played the hymn from his first battalion, a long ribbon of tearful mourners numbering in the hundreds of thousands bid farewell to the larger-than-life leader Wednesday after a procession carried his casket through Caracas.

With the entire government, including anointed successor Nicolas Maduro, caught up in the seven-hour procession, there were few answers to the most pressing question facing the country — the timing of a presidential election that must be called within a month.

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 to cancer Tuesday afternoon.

Chavez's coffin made its way 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 president's glass-topped casket. The public then began filing past to peer at their longtime president, many of them coming closer to him than they had ever been while he was alive. Some placed their hand over their heart, others saluting or raising a fist in solidarity. The viewing lasted far into the night.

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 has not been announced, nor has it been revealed where he will be laid to rest.

During Chavez's nearly two-year health fight, the government never specified the exact location or type of cancer he had.

Opponents already have been stepping up criticism of the government's questionable moves after Chavez's death, including naming Maduro, the vice president, as interim president in apparent violation of the constitution, and the military's eagerness to choose political sides.

For a day, at least, Chavez's heartbroken supporters immersed themselves in emotion and sad farewells.

Maduro and Bolivian President Evo Morales, one of Chavez's staunchest allies, mingled with the crowd, and at one point both fell to the ground in the jostle of bodies pushing in every direction.

Military officers and Cabinet members ringed the president's coffin, stone-faced. Other mourners pumped their fists and held aloft images of the late president, amid countless yellow, blue and red Venezuelan flags.

"The fight goes on! Chavez lives!" the mourners shouted in unison, many through eyes red from crying for long hours.

Chavez's mother, Elena Frias de Chavez, leaned against her son's casket, while a priest read a prayer before the procession left the military hospital where Chavez died at age 58.

People who passed by the glass-topped coffin said Chavez's body was clad in the presidential sash and the military uniform and red beret of his days as a paratrooper.

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

"I feel so much pain. So much pain," said Yamile Gil, a 38-year-old housewife. "We never wanted to see our president like this. We will always love him."

Others who bitterly opposed Chavez's take-no-prisoners brand of socialism said they were sorry about his death, but hopeful it would usher in a less confrontational, more business-friendly era in this major oil-producing country.

"I am not happy that he has died, but I can't be sad either," said Delia Ramirez, a 32-year-old accountant who stayed away from the procession. "This man sowed hatred and division among Venezuelans."

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