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Foreign leaders attend Hugo Chavez funeral

Along with Cuba's Raul Castro and Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Sean Penn comes to Venezuela to pay his respects to the much loved and vilified leader.

March 08, 2013|By Chris Kraul and Mery Mogollon, Los Angeles Times
  • Venezuelan soldiers push the protective fences as supporters wait in line to pay their respects to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in Caracas on Thursday. The leader, 58, died of cancer on Tuesday.
Venezuelan soldiers push the protective fences as supporters wait in line… (Leo Ramirez, AFP/Getty…)

CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was remembered Friday as a leader who cared for the poor and opposed the dominance of one nation over others during a funeral ceremony that attracted dignitaries from around the world.

The Venezuelan national anthem was played by the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra, directed by conductor Gustavo Dudamel.

In his funeral oration, Vice President Nicolas Maduro said Chavez, who died Tuesday at 58 after a long bout with cancer, was the champion of the oppressed and "redeemer of our poor and those of all the world." Perhaps referring to Chavez's frequent tirades against the United States, Maduro said Chavez wanted "a world without empires, without hegemonies."

"There was never a leader more vilified than Hugo Chavez," Maduro, who was sworn in late Friday as interim president, told those assembled at the Venezuelan Military Academy. "But our commander had inside him the biggest shield against infamy a human being can have: his purity and the love of Christ, which saved him and left him undefeated."

With Chavez family members sitting among dignitaries who included Cuban President Raul Castro, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Chilean President Sebastian Piñera and Spain's Prince Felipe, Maduro began the observance by placing a replica of liberator Bolivar's sword atop Chavez's coffin.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, addressing the congregation, issued a plea for better binational relations and asked God to "heal the breach between the U.S. and Venezuela" and to "let there be peace between nations."

"Let us forgive, redeem and move on to higher ground," Jackson said. "We are neighbors who share the same hemisphere. We play ball together. We share natural resources and we combat drugs together, share dreams and are bound by culture and environment."

Others in attendance included Uruguayan President Jose Mujica and actor Sean Penn, who has expressed his friendship with Chavez as well as gratitude for financial support of relief efforts Penn directed in Haiti. Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner unexpectedly left before the service, citing medical reasons, officials said.

Dudamel, the Venezuelan-born music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, traveled to Caracas on an overnight flight after a performance Thursday night.

Maduro took the oath as interim president from National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, swearing to uphold the constitution and laws of Venezuela in the "name of our Commandante Hugo Chavez." The Friday night ceremony was held in the assembly hall in central Caracas.

Riding a wave of sympathy for Chavez, Maduro is heavily favored to win a special election next month for the presidency.

A date for the election had not been set late Friday, although the constitution stipulates such an election be held within 30 days of the death or resignation of the incumbent.

Opposition spokesman Angel Medina had held a news conference Friday to announce that he and other opponents of the Chavez government will boycott the special assembly session, describing it as unconstitutional and an "electoral event." He had also opposed attending a special session at the military academy, before the location was changed to the National Assembly building.

According to the constitution, Cabello was supposed to assume the office of interim president after Chavez died, until a special election could be held. Medina said Maduro was assuming the office illegally to gain an advantage in the coming election.

But the seven-member Supreme Court ruled Friday that Maduro was entitled to assume the interim presidency. The court also ruled that Maduro does not have to resign from his office to run.

At a news conference before the swearing in, Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chavez in a presidential election in October, said the act would be a "spurious" one because it violated the constitutional requirement that the National Assembly president take power until the public chooses Chavez's successor in an election.

"The public hasn't voted for you, chico," Capriles said, referring to Maduro.

Medina also criticized Defense Minister Diego Molero Bellavia's comment Wednesday that the "mission" of the armed forces would be to "bring Nicolas Maduro to the presidency of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela."

"The military has no business in electoral activities," Medina said. "Its purpose is to defend Venezuelan sovereignty and guarantee the peace."

After the Friday ceremony, public viewing of Chavez's body, which has lain in state since Wednesday, was set to resume at the Museum of the Revolution for seven more days. Although thousands of faithful paid their respects Wednesday and Thursday, many more were expected to come over the next week.

Ultimately, Chavez's body will be re-embalmed and placed on permanent public view in a glass case like those of Ho Chi Minh and Lenin.

Mujica, the Uruguayan leader, commented on the thousands of Venezuelans who were honoring Chavez's memory.

"The most impressive thing about the ceremony is the interminable march of the people of all colors, of all backgrounds," Mujica said.

Kraul and Mogollon are special correspondents.

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