CARACAS (Reuters) - Saluting, clenching fists and making the Roman Catholic sign of the cross over Hugo Chavez’s casket, Venezuelans crowded on Thursday to see their deceased leader one last time and pledge that his socialist revolution will not die.
Grieving supporters queued around a grandiose military academy in a mass show of devotion to Chavez, who died on Tuesday aged 58 after a two-year battle with cancer.
More than 2 million people have already paid their respects.
From soldiers in fatigues to officers in ceremonial dress, senior ministers to residents of the slums where Chavez was most loved, those in line vowed to defend his legacy and back his preferred heir, acting President Nicolas Maduro, in a new vote.
“I arrived in the wee hours to see Chavez. He is my personal idol,” said Henry Acosta, 56, outside the academy where the leader’s body will lie in state until a funeral on Friday.
A sobbing Berta Colmenares, 77, said “Chavistas” must throw their weight behind Maduro to carry on the revolution.
“I will vote for Maduro, who else? He is the one who Chavez chose and we have to follow his wish.”
Chavez was dressed in an army uniform and a signature red beret like the one he wore in a 1992 speech to the nation that launched his political career after he led a failed coup.
People were given just a few seconds to glance at Chavez’s body inside the relatively simple wooden coffin, which had a glass top and was draped in flowers and a Venezuelan flag.
One government source told Reuters that Chavez slipped into a coma on Monday and died the next day of respiratory failure after a rapid deterioration from the weekend, when he had held a five-hour meeting with ministers at his bedside.
The cancer had spread to his lungs, according to the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
There is uncertainty over exactly when a presidential vote will be held in the South American OPEC country with the world’s largest oil reserves and 29 million residents.
Though the constitution stipulates a poll must be held within 30 days, politicians say election authorities may not be ready in time and there is talk of a possible delay. Chavez ruled for 14 years and won four presidential elections.
Maduro, 50, a former union leader who ended his education at high school before plunging into politics, looks certain to face opposition leader Henrique Capriles, 40, the centrist governor of Miranda state who lost to Chavez in last year’s election.
Members of the opposition have kept a low profile and offered condolences during the enormous show of support for one of Latin America’s most popular leaders.
But some expressed relief at the demise of a man they saw as a dictator who trampled on opponents and ruined their economy.
“I wanted his mandate to end. Power made him lose perspective,” said Israel Nogales, 43, a university administrator walking in a Caracas park.
“He polarized the country and families like mine. ... He is going to be treated like a martyr and that is wrong.”
Opposition sources told Reuters on Wednesday they have again agreed to back Capriles, whose 44 percent vote share in 2012 was the best performance by any candidate against Chavez.
One recent opinion poll gave Maduro a strong lead, and both international markets and foreign diplomats are factoring in a probable win for him and a continuation of “Chavista” policies, at least in the short term.
The tall and hefty Maduro, who lacks Chavez’s man-of-the-people charisma, served as his foreign minister for six years before being named vice president in late 2012.
He has pledged to adhere to Chavez’s brand of ferociously nationalist politics and controversial economic policies that included regular seizures of private businesses as well as wildly popular social welfare programs.
Some analysts believe Maduro might eventually try to ease tensions with Western investors and the U.S. government. But just hours before Chavez’s death, he was accusing “imperialist” enemies of infecting the president with cancer and he expelled two American diplomats for alleged conspiracies.
Maduro is expected to continue bashing Washington, at least until the election. He may have to step down from his role as caretaker president to launch his candidacy. One official source told Reuters that Chavez’s son-in-law, Science Minister Jorge Arreaza, might step into that role.
Capriles, an athletic career politician and lawyer from a wealthy family, wants Venezuela to follow Brazil’s softer center-left model.
Venezuela’s heavily traded global bonds, which gained before Chavez’s death, were down for a second straight day on Thursday as investors realized his economic model of government control could persist for years. Yields for its 2027 bond spiked to nearly 9.5 percent as prices continued to fall.
Maduro said Chavez’s wake will be extended seven more days and that his body will be laid to rest in a military museum in Caracas. A state funeral expected to be attended by 30 heads of state from around the world will be held on Friday.
“It has been decided that the body of the comandante will be embalmed so that it remains eternally on view for the people at the museum,” Maduro said in a speech.
Some supporters had wanted Chavez buried in a grand mausoleum near the remains of 19th century independence hero Simon Bolivar, his inspiration.
State media have been airing old Chavez speeches and songs over and over in lengthy tributes.
Foreign Minister Elias Jaua urged private Venezuelan media outlets to let “Chavistas” mourn and refrain from provoking opponents to hold rallies against the government.
Authorities blame TV channels aligned with the opposition for helping incite a 2002 coup that briefly toppled Chavez.
At the wake, Venezuelans strained for a glimpse of Chavez, many welling up in tears as they reached his casket.
“I told him ‘don’t worry, Nicolas Maduro will be the new president as you asked’,” said nurse Maria Fernandez, 51, after filing past the coffin.
Grief was raw in Cuba, too, where Chavez had close relations with past and present leaders, Fidel and Raul Castro.
Subsidized oil supplies begun under Chavez helped keep the communist-run island’s economy afloat, while more than 40,000 Cubans work in Venezuela in health clinics, sports programs, the military and government ministries.
“I could not control the tears,” said one Cuban woman, Omara Lahera, paying tribute at a large photo of Chavez in Havana’s Revolution Square. “His death took us by surprise. He always lived in our hearts.”
Some of Chavez’s closest allies are already in Caracas to join the mourning, including the presidents of Bolivia, Uruguay and Argentina.
“He helped all the people of Latin America, he fought for integration and he is part of our history,” Argentine leader Cristina Fernandez said.
Additional reporting by Simon Gardner and Marianna Parraga in Caracas, Rosa Tania Valdes in Havana, Helen Popper in Buenos Aires, Daniel Bases in New York; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Kieran Murray and Doina Chiacu