March 7, 2013 / 1:01 AM / 4 years ago

UPDATE 7-Mourning Venezuelans parade Chavez's coffin, prepare for vote

* Socialist leader dead after two-year battle with cancer
    * VP Maduro becomes caretaker leader until election
    * Latin American leaders flock to Caracas

 (Adds description of Chavez lying in state)
    By Simon Gardner and Andrew Cawthorne
    CARACAS, March 6 (Reuters) - Sobbing and shouting, a throng
of Hugo Chavez's supporters paraded his coffin through the
streets of Caracas on Wednesday in an emotional outpouring that
could help his deputy win an election to keep his socialist
revolution alive. 
    Hundreds of thousands of "Chavistas" marched behind a hearse
carrying the body of the flamboyant and outspoken president,
draped in Venezuela's blue, red and yellow national flag.
    Avenues resounded with chants honoring the former
paratrooper as supporters showered flowers on his coffin and
jostled to touch it. Loudspeakers played recordings of the
charismatic socialist giving speeches and singing. 
    Some supporters held heart-shaped placards that read: "I
love Chavez!" Others cheered from rooftops, waving T-shirts.   
    Ending one of Latin America's most remarkable populist
rules, Chavez died on Tuesday at age 58 after a two-year battle
with cancer that was first detected in his pelvis.
    His body was taken to a military academy to lie in state at
the tip of a grand esplanade until his state funeral on Friday.
Late into the night, a somber procession of thousands filed past
the glass-topped coffin. 
    Soldiers saluted from behind a red rope and members of the
public sobbed. Some were pushed through in wheelchairs. With a
touch of the elbow and a quiet word, security men kept the line
moving as top members of the government looked on. 
    The future of Chavez's socialist policies, which won him the
admiration of poor Venezuelans but infuriated opponents who
denounced him as a dictator, now rests on the shoulders of
acting President Nicolas Maduro, the man he tapped to succeed
him.
    "We ask our people to channel this pain into peace," Maduro
said. 
    Maduro, a 50-year-old former bus driver and union leader,
will face Henrique Capriles, the centrist governor of Miranda
state, in an election  due within weeks in the OPEC nation with
the world's largest oil reserves.
   
    Opposition parties and Capriles have agreed he will make
another bid for the presidency, sources said on Wednesday. 
    He lost to Chavez in last year's election but had a
respectable 44 percent of the vote, the best performance by any
candidate against Chavez in a presidential contest.
 
    One recent opinion poll gave Maduro a strong lead over the
40-year-old Capriles. Maduro, who wore a track-suit top in the
colors of the Venezuelan flag and hugged mourners as he stood by
Chavez's coffin, will likely benefit from the surge of emotion. 
    Authorities said the vote would be called within 30 days, as
stipulated by the constitution, but did not specify when. 
    The tall, mustachioed Maduro has long been a close ally of
Chavez. He pledges to continue his legacy and it is unlikely he
would make major policy changes.
    He will now focus on rallying support from Chavez's diverse
coalition, which ranges from leftist ideologues to business
leaders who have contracts with the state, and armed groups
known as "colectivos." 
    Some have suggested Maduro might try to ease tensions with
foreign companies and the U.S. government. Yet hours before
Chavez's death, Maduro accused "imperialist" enemies of
infecting the president with cancer and expelled two U.S.
diplomats accused of conspiring with domestic opponents.
    Venezuela's military commanders pledged loyalty to Maduro,
who will be caretaker leader until the election, and soldiers
fired 21-gun salutes to Chavez in barracks across the nation.
    A victory by Capriles, a centrist politician who says
Venezuela should follow Brazil's softer center-left model, would
be welcome by investors and bring big changes - although he has
called for calm and respect for many people's sense of loss.
    "Don't be scared. Don't be anxious. Between us all, we are
going to guarantee the peace this beloved country deserves,"
Capriles said in a condolence message.
    Venezuelan debt prices fell on Wednesday as investors locked
in gains chalked up in anticipation of Chavez's death, citing
short-term political uncertainty. 
    
    ALLIES
    The stakes are also huge for leftist Latin American allies
like Cuba, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Bolivia that for years have
relied on Chavez for economic aid.
    But leaders of other countries in the region - mainly
free-traders like Peru, Chile, Colombia, Panama and Mexico -
periodically rejected his overtures, criticized his statist
policies and, for Washington, served as a buffer against him.
    It was not immediately clear where Chavez would be buried.
    He had ordered a striking mausoleum built in downtown
Caracas for the remains of 19th century independence hero Simon
Bolivar, his inspiration, and it is due to be finished soon.
Some allies said he should be buried there.
    Despite the tumult around the coffin procession, much of
Caracas was quiet on Wednesday. There were long lines outside
gasoline stations.
    A stony-faced Bolivian President Evo Morales joined Maduro
at the front of the procession. The presidents of Argentina and
Uruguay joined them for a vigil by the coffin. Other regional
leaders are expected to attend his funeral.
    "This has hit me very hard, I'm still in shock," said Leny
Bolivar, a 39-year-old Education Ministry worker, her eyes red
from crying. "We must keep fighting; he showed us the way."
    Condolences flooded in from around the world - ranging from
the Vatican and the United Nations to allies like Iran and Cuba.
    Syrian President Bashar al-Assad mourned Chavez's death as a
great loss, extolling his opposition to the "war on Syria." 
    
    OBAMA REACHES OUT
    U.S. President Barack Obama was less effusive about a man
who put his country at loggerheads with Washington, saying his
administration was interested in "developing a constructive
relationship with the Venezuelan government."
    In a potentially conciliatory gesture, the United States, a
major oil client of Venezuela, is expected to send a delegation
to the funeral.
    Opponents at home hoped for a fresh start. 
    "Chavez was very dominant and used the powers of state in a
very discretional way, as though this was his own estate," Juan
Vendrell, a 58-year-old engineer, said in a wealthy neighborhood
of Caracas. "I would like a change and for institutions and
democracy to be restored."     
    Chavez led Venezuela for 14 years and won a new six-year
term in last October's election. 
    His folksy charisma, anti-U.S. diatribes and oil-financed
projects to improve life for residents of long-neglected slums
created an unusually powerful bond with many poor Venezuelans.
    That emotional connection underpinned his rule, but critics
saw his autocratic style, gleeful nationalizations and often
harsh treatment of rivals as hallmarks of a dictator whose
policies squandered a historic bonanza of oil revenues.
    The nationalizations and strict currency controls under
Chavez frightened off investors. Even some of his followers
complained that he focused too much on ideological issues at the
expense of day-to-day problems such as power cuts, high
inflation, food shortages and violent crime. 
    Chavez's health declined sharply just after his re-election
on Oct. 7, possibly because of his decision to campaign for a
third term instead of stepping aside to focus on his recovery.
    The government declared seven days of mourning. 

 (With reporting by Enrique Andres Pretel, Deisy Buitrago,
Marianna Parraga, Ana Isabel Martinez and Daniel Wallis; Editing
by Terry Wade, Kieran Murray and Peter Cooney)

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