CARACAS, Venezuela – A flag-draped coffin carrying the body of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez floated over a sea of supporters Wednesday on its way to a military academy where it will lie in state. Away from the procession route, jittery Venezuelans facing an uncertain future without their larger-than-life leader flocked to supermarkets and gas stations to stock up on supplies, preparing for the worst a day after Chavez succumbed to cancer.
Tens of thousands lined the streets or walked with the casket in the capital, many weeping as the body approached, led by a grim drum major. Other mourners pumped their fists and held aloft images of the late president, amid countless waving yellow, blue and red Venezuelan flags.
“The fight goes on! Chavez lives!” shouted the mourners in unison, many through eyes red from crying late into the night.
Chavez’s bereaved mother Elena Frias de Chavez leaned against her son’s casket, while a priest read a prayer before the procession left the military hospital where Chavez died at the age of 58. Vice President Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s anointed successor, walked with the crowd, along with Cabinet members and uniformed soldiers.
“I feel so much pain. So much pain,” said Yamile Gil, a 38-year-old housewife. “We never wanted to see our president like this. We will always love him.”
The former paratrooper will remain at the military academy until his Friday funeral, which promises to draw leaders from all over the world. Already, the presidents of Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia have arrived to mourn a man whose passing leaves an enormous void in the region’s anti-American left.
“The Chavez-less era begins,” declared a front-page headline in Caracas’s El Universal newspaper.
But even in death, Chavez’s orders were being heeded in a country covered with posters bearing his image and graffiti pledging “We are all Chavez!”
Maduro will continue to run Venezuela as interim president and will stand as candidate of Chavez’s socialist party in an election the country’s constitution requires be called within 30 days.
In a late-night tweet, Venezuelan state television said Defense Minister Adm. Diego Molero had pledged military support for Maduro’s candidacy against likely opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, despite a constitutional mandate that the armed forces play a nonpolitical role.
For die-hard Chavistas who camped out all night outside the military hospital, Wednesday was the first full day without a leader many described as a father figure, an icon in the mold of the early-19th century liberator Simon Bolivar. Others saw the death of a man who presided over Venezuela as a virtual one-man show as an opportunity to turn back the clock on his socialist policies.
For both sides, uncertainty ruled the day.
It was not immediately clear when the presidential vote would be held, or where or when Chavez would be buried following Friday’s pageant-filled funeral.
Venezuela’s constitution specifies that the speaker of the National Assembly, currently Diosdado Cabello, should assume the interim presidency if a president can’t be sworn in.
But critics say the officials left in charge by Chavez before he went to Cuba in December for his fourth cancer surgery have not been assiduous about heeding the constitution, and human rights and free speech activists are concerned they will flaunt the rule of law. Many took to Twitter to cite Article 233 of the constitution, which they said establishes Cabello as the rightful interim president.
Just a few hours before announcing Chavez’s death, Maduro virulently accused foreign and domestic enemies, clearly including the United States, of trying to undermine Venezuelan democracy. The government said two U.S. military attaches had been expelled for allegedly trying to destabilize the nation, and Maduro insisted Chavez was purposefully “attacked” with cancer. He said a scientific commission would be set up to investigate.
There has been no word on any plans for an autopsy, and while the government has said Chavez suffered from cancer, it has never specified the exact location or type of cancer.
Many mourners Wednesday took their cue from Maduro, venting anger at Washington and accusing Venezuela’s opposition of conspiring with far-right U.S. forces to undermine the revolution.
“The government of the United States is not going to rest,” said Oscar Navas, a 33-year-old fruit vendor and Chavez supporter who joined the procession. “It’s going to continue conspiring against our revolution because we are anti-imperialists. I don’t have the slightest doubt the CIA is here, undercover, doing whatever it can to destabilize our country.”
Venezuela and the United States have a complicated relationship, with Chavez’s enemy to the north remaining the top buyer of Venezuelan oil. But Chavez’s inner circle has long claimed the United States was behind a failed 2002 attempt to overthrow him, and he has frequently used anti-American rhetoric to stir up support. Venezuela has been without a U.S. ambassador since July 2010 and expelled another U.S. military officer in 2006.
U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell denied Washington was trying to destabilize Venezuela and said the claim “leads us to conclude that, unfortunately, the current Venezuelan government is not interested in an improved relationship.”
Ventrell added that the suggestion that the United States had a hand in Chavez’s illness was “absurd.” He hinted the U.S. could reciprocate with expulsions of Venezuelan diplomats.
Capriles, the youthful governor of Miranda state who lost to Chavez in the October presidential election, was conciliatory in a televised address Tuesday. He is widely expected to run against Maduro.
“This is not the moment to highlight what separates us,” Capriles said. “This is not the hour for differences; it is the hour for union, it is the hour for peace.”
Although the armed forces chief, Gen. Wilmer Barrientos, reported “complete calm” in the country late Tuesday, several incidents of political violence flared after Chavez’s death.
A group of masked, helmeted men on motorcycles, some brandishing revolvers, reportedly attacked about 40 students Tuesday who had been protesting for more than a week near the Supreme Court building to demand the government give more information about Chavez’s health.
The assailants, who didn’t wear clothing identifying any political allegiance, burned the students’ tents and scattered their food just minutes after Chavez’s death was announced.
“They burned everything we had,” said student leader Gaby Arellano. She said she saw four of the attackers with pistols but none fired a shot.
Outside the military hospital, an angry crowd also roughed up a Colombian TV reporter.
“They beat us with helmets, with sticks, men, women, adults,” Carmen Andrea Rengifo said on RCN TV. Video images showed her bleeding above the forehead, but she was not seriously injured.
Maduro and other government officials have railed against international media for allegedly reporting rumors about Chavez’s health, although RCN wasn’t one of those criticized.
Chavez leaves behind a political movement in control of a nation that human rights activist Liliana Ortega, director of the nongovernmental group COFAVIC, describes as a badly deteriorated state where institutions such as the police, courts and prosecutor’s offices have been converted into tools of political persecution and where most media are firmly controlled by the government.
Javier Corrales, an Amherst College political scientist, said he was concerned about the “virulent, anti-American discourse” under Maduro. “It seems to me this is a government that is beginning to blame the United States for all its troubles.”
“This is very dark,” he said. “This is the most nebulous period, the most menacing that the government has been, and the actions have been pretty severe.”