CARACAS, Venezuela – Thousands of supporters dressed in red followed a flag-draped coffin carrying the body of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez on Wednesday shouting their eternal love for their dead leader while promising to vote for his successor in the coming elections.
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 flag.
The coffin was 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 worse a day after Chávez succumbed to cancer.
The fight goes on! Chávez lives!
- shouted the mourners in unison, many through eyes red from crying late into the night
"The fight goes on! Chávez lives!" shouted the mourners in unison, many through eyes red from crying late into the night.
Venezuelan state television aired the procession uninterrupted on Wednesday. The broadcast was anchored by supporters of Chávez following the procession. The channel rarely used reporters and instead passed the microphone to hundreds of Chávez mourners who professed their love for him and support for Vice President Nicolas Maduro.
"We will always love you. I love you my love. You are my life Chávez," a woman cried on state TV.
"We have one hand on our hearts, and the other is a closed fist," another man threatened as he shouted his support for Maduro and Chávez.
Chávez's bereaved mother Elena Frias de Chávez leaned against her son's casket, while a priest read a prayer before the procession left the military hospital where Chávez died at the age of 58. Maduro, Chávez'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 Chávez-less era begins," declared a front-page headline in Caracas's El Universal newspaper.
But even in death, Chávez's orders were being heeded in a country covered with posters bearing his image and graffiti pledging "We are all Chávez!"
Maduro will continue to run Venezuela as interim president and will stand as candidate of Chávez'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.
There has been no word on any plans for an autopsy, and while the government has said Chávez 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 Chávez 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 Chávez's enemy to the north remaining the top buyer of Venezuelan oil. But Chávez'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.
Although the armed forces chief, Gen. Wilmer Barrientos, reported "complete calm" in the country late Tuesday, several incidents of political violence flared after Chávez's death.
A group of masked, helmeted men on motorcycles, some brandishing revolvers, reportedly attacked about 40 students on Tuesday who had been protesting for more than a week near the Supreme Court building to demand the government give more information about Chávez's health.
The assailants, who didn't wear clothing identifying any political allegiance, burned the students' tents and scattered their food just minutes after Chávez'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 Chávez's health, although RCN wasn't one of those criticized.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.