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Intense but orderly grieving for Chavez in Venezuela capital

Soldiers and police are out in force in central Caracas, where residents express opposing views on the legacy of Hugo Chavez.

March 05, 2013|By Richard Fausset and Mery Mogollon, Los Angeles Times
  • In Caracas, supporters of Hugo Chavez react to the news of the Venezuelan president's death.
In Caracas, supporters of Hugo Chavez react to the news of the Venezuelan… (Ariana Cubillos / Associated…)

CARACAS, Venezuela — Subway commuters cried on their trains. Drivers blasted their horns in grief. The government called for seven days of national mourning.

Meanwhile, other residents of the Venezuelan capital jammed into Plaza Bolivar and asked that President Hugo Chavez's body be brought to them there, in the colonial heart of the country he had transformed — for better or worse — with his outsized personality and unique brand of pan-Latin petro-socialism.

"Chavez vive!" they chanted. Chavez lives. "La lucha sigue!" The struggle continues.

The death of the Venezuelan leader Tuesday at age 58 was not unexpected; he had been suffering from cancer since at least June 2011. Perhaps as a result, the early response in the streets of Caracas was a grief that was intense but orderly.

It was an order strictly enforced by the military and police, who were in full force in the city center. They were aided in their task by the fact that people in Caracas tend to turn in early anyway, for fear of street crime.

Even so, Defense Minister Diego Molero appeared on television in olive fatigues Tuesday afternoon, telling the people that the armed forces would be deploying in the streets to guarantee "the sovereignty [and] the security of all of the citizens of Venezuela."

Chavez, he added, had died "clinging to Christ, clinging to that cross with which he is now reunited, and asking of all of the Venezuelan people, unity, unity, unity."

Unsurprisingly, it was not to be. In death, as in life, Chavez would prove controversial.

Enderson Pimentel, 25, said Chavez's death "leaves an enormous pain in our heart.… We have to have the strength, so that what Chavez brought about is not lost."

But Josefina Gonzalez, 57, argued that what Chavez had left, beyond millions of ardent supporters, was a legacy of "misery, death and persecuted people."

"He had, in his hands, the possibility of uniting the country," she said, "but he left it profoundly divided."

And so it was the world over. In La Paz, Bolivian President Evo Morales said Chavez, his close comrade in socialism, "would continue to be an inspiration for the peoples who struggle for their liberation. Chavez will always be present, Chavez will always be with us to accompany these grand proceedings."

About 2,100 miles to the north, the New York-based Human Rights Watch released a seven-page report outlining Chavez's "authoritarian legacy," accusing him of establishing a system in which journalists, judges and government critics worked under the fear of reprisal from his revolutionary government. The group also noted Chavez's vocal support for such leaders as Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the late Moammar Kadafi of Libya.

Chavez had theorized publicly that the U.S. had found a way to infect him and other leftist Latin leaders with cancer. On Tuesday morning, with Chavez on the brink of death, his handpicked successor, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, reiterated the idea, alleging that Chavez's sickness was the work of "enemies of the homeland."

Maduro also said two U.S. military attaches were being expelled from the country for attempting to recruit Venezuelan officers in a plot to destabilize the country.

Foreign Affairs Minister Elias Jaua told state news media that Maduro would be interim president and run as the governing party's candidate in an election to be called within 30 days. Barring a coup or some other unforeseen development, Maduro could face off against opposition leader Henrique Capriles, whom Chavez defeated in last year's presidential election.

"My solidarity to all of the family and followers of President Hugo Chavez," Capriles tweeted Tuesday night. "We advocate for the unity of Venezuelans at this moment."

Jaua said Chavez's body would lie in state in the chapel at the Fuerte Tiuna military academy in Caracas from Wednesday until Friday, when a state funeral will be held at 10 a.m.

Times staff writer Fausset reported from Mexico City and special correspondent Mogollon from Caracas. Cecilia Sanchez of The Times' Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.

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