CARACAS -- Venezuelans are bidding farewell to one president and preparing to welcome another, in a series of ceremonies Friday that serve as precursors to new elections that will determine the future of this Andean nation.
More than 55 leaders from around the world are in attendance at the state funeral of President Hugo Chávez.
The funeral ceremony, which included performances of traditional music and comments from Latin American and Caribbean leaders such as Cuba’s Raul Castro, a staunch ally of Chávez, is taking place at Caracas’s Military Academy.
Later tonight, at 7, Vice President Nicolás Maduro is scheduled to be sworn in as acting president in front of the National Assembly.
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Once Maduro is in office, the constitution requires that new elections be called within 30 days. Maduro will run as Chávez’s anointed successor.
Chávez’s body has been lying in state at the Military Academy since Wednesday, and hundreds of thousands of followers waited in line for hours to catch a brief glimpse of the socialist firebrand leader who died Tuesday of an undisclosed type of cancer. He was 58.
On Thursday, Maduro said Chávez will not be buried, but embalmed like the late Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin, so he can be seen “for eternity.”
Also late Thursday, the administration confirmed that Maduro, 50, will be sworn in as interim president. Constitutional scholars had been alarmed that the administration was delaying the swearing-in, saying the country has been without a leader since Tuesday.
As Venezuelans continued to pour in from around the country to view the iconic man who led this oil-rich nation since 1999, the government said Chávez’s casket would remain at the Military Academy for an additional week. After that his remains will be moved to a hilltop military base, from where he launched a failed coup in 1992, and which will be converted into a museum of Chávez’s self-proclaimed socialist “Bolivarian Revolution.”
Maduro said the late president’s body will ultimately end up at a permanent monument.
Chávez’s followers have been asking that he be buried at the landmark National Pantheon, alongside the 19th century Latin American Liberator Simon Bolivar. Venezuela’s constitution states that leaders must be dead at least 25 years before being moved into the structure. However, the government has floated the idea of an amendment.
Juan Silva, a 63-year-old retired architect, had been waiting for 12 hours to see the president. Dressed in military fatigues, Silva said he favored the idea of putting Chávez on permanent display.
“It’s not the same as having him below ground as above ground. As long as we can see him we are going to defend the revolution,” he said. “The moment we don’t see him we might lose his vision of the revolution.”
Ana Puello, 30, had been in line for 25 hours and was still waiting. She said it was important for her to see him, but she didn’t think he should be preserved forever.
“He’s not a saint, he’s a hero,” she said. “He spent 14 years fighting for the country and we should let him rest.”
Stores and shops were closed Friday in observance of a government-decreed week of national mourning, and traffic was light on the streets of Caracas.
Chávez died Tuesday from complications related to an undisclosed form of cancer he had been battling since at least June 2011. However, the head of the presidential guard told the Associated Press that Chávez died of a massive heart attack.