CARACAS, Venezuela -- The funeral ceremony for late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez got underway Friday at a military base in the capital before 32 heads of state and with the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra directed by Los Angeles conductor Gustavo Dudamel playing the national anthem.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro began the observance by placing a replica of liberator Simon Bolivar’s sword atop Chavez’s coffin. Members of the late president's family sat among leaders from around the world, including presidents Raul Castro of Cuba, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran and Sebastian Pinera of Chile. Spain’s Prince Felipe was also on hand.
Also in attendance was actor Sean Penn, who had expressed his friendship with Chavez as well as gratitude for Venezuela's financial support of relief efforts Penn directed in Haiti. Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner unexpectedly left before the service, citing medical reasons, officials said.
[Updated 10:40 a.m. March 8: "There was never a leader more vilified than Hugo Chavez,” Maduro told those assembled at the Venzuelan 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.”
The Rev. Jesse Jackson issued a plea for better relations, asking God to “heal the breach between the U.S. and Venezuela” and “let there be peace between nations.”
“Let us forgive, redeem and move on to higher ground. 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,” Jackson said.]
Maduro was scheduled to be sworn in as interim president later in a special session of the National Assembly at the military academy where the funeral ceremony was held. Riding a wave of sympathy for Chavez, Maduro is heavily favored to win a special presidential election next month.
A date for the election had not yet been set, although the constitution stipulates such an election be held within 30 days of the death or resignation of the incumbent.
Just as the ceremony began, opposition Assemblyman Angel Medina held a news conference in Caracas to announce he and other opponents of the Chavez government would boycott Friday's special assembly, describing it as unconstitutional and an “electoral event.”
“Why do we have to have an assembly session at a military installation" when all congress members are in Caracas and able to attend such as session at the assembly building, Martin said.
According to the constitution, Assembly President Diosdado Cabello was supposed to assume the office as 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.
Shortly before the funeral began, the seven-member supreme court issued a judgment that Maduro was entitled to assume interim presidency.
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.
Dudamel, a Venezuelan, flew to Caracas in an overnight flight after directing the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a performance Thursday night.