Supporters of Venezuela's late President Hugo Chavez crowd the street… (Rodrigo Abd / Associated…)
CARACAS, Venezuela-- In a massive outpouring of grief for Venezuela's late President Hugo Chavez, hundreds of thousands of his red-shirted, fervent and often tearful followers lined a route through the capital where his coffin was being carried on its way to a military base where it will lie in state until his funeral on Friday.
Those interviewed as they waited Wednesday said their lives had been touched by Chavez, who died the day before of cancer at age 58. Many highlighted the facets of the socialist "Bolivarean revolution" that rechanneled the nation's vast oil wealth to dozens of social programs, called missions, that brought health, education and food assistance to the poor.
Outfitted in a red T-shirt and sporting a Chavez poster, special education teacher Maria Eugenia Mendoza, 55, said Chavez's government had made all the difference for her formerly "marginalized" students -- brain-damaged children who previously had been taught in a rundown warehouse with scant resources.
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"Poor, handicapped students were forgotten until he came to power. They suffered from a total lack of focus by the government," said Mendoza, a teacher for 25 years. "Under Chavez there was a complete change. We now have a new school, curriculum, diagnostic equipment, trips and even sports programs. He gave us hope. That's why I am a Chavista."
Student Miskeya Hernandez, 18, said she and other youths in her poor Quota 905 barrio also benefited from the presidency of the charismatic former army colonel.
"He gave us schools, books, computer supplies and he founded universities," Hernandez said. "He gave us opportunities and a nation. [Vice President Nicolas] Maduro has to continue ahead, but Chavez is irreplaceable."
"Only people who are forgotten die, and Chavez will never be forgotten, not for 100 years," said Francisco Umbria, a retired municipal employee. "The poor were the forgotten ones before Chavez took office. Now we are visible, and the government has given us power we never had before." Umbria, Hernandez and others lined the Aveninda Proceres where Chavez's coffin was later to pass on its way from the hospital where he died to the Venezuelan Military Academy, inside the Tiuna Fort military base in Caracas. The president will lie in state in the base's chapel prior to a state funeral, scheduled for Friday. Hours for public viewing were not yet finalized Wednesday afternoon.
Though the fiercely anti-American Chavez had many critics in Venezuela, especially among the more affluent, they were not evident among the people who lined the street, waiting for a glimpse of the president's casket.
"When Chavez took office, I was only 14, so it's hard to speak of how things generally were before. What I can tell you is that my family is better off in the ability to acquire things and services," said Jose Perez, 29, a national ministry employee.
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Chavez's legacy? "He has shown us the way to build the country we want," Perez said.
Elida Mero, 45, an insurance saleswoman, said social work in the blue-collar barrios barely existed before Chavez took office, and that Chavez mounted numerous projects that meant everything to the poor. "I learned from him that all human beings are equal and to respect people," Mero said.
"Chavez was more than just an image to us. He was a very human figure who worked to improve our lives," said information technology engineer Vicente Rodriguez, 47. "Before, I couldn't have cared less about politics, but he got me involved and interested in working for the common good." Rodriguez said he donates part of his time as a consultant to adult education.
Life before Chavez was "terrible," said Taina Carrillo, a 35-year-old housewife from the poor Petare slum of eastern Caracas. "Now we have a three-story medical clinic in the middle of the barrio. That's why I am 100% Chavista. We mattered to him, and he made us feel important. He will never be forgotten."
Gregorio Torres, a 70-year-old retired laborer, said: "Everything changed for us poor with Chavez. He understood our necessities and he gave us education, healthcare, housing, jobs and even a pension. I always believed in whatever project that he proposed. Better people than him, they don't exist. I’m here to give him the last adios."
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Kraul and Mogollon are special correspondents.