CARACAS, Venezuela – President Hugo Chavez was lauded as a modern-day reincarnation of Latin American liberator Simon Bolivar and a disciple of Cuba’s Fidel Castro at a fiery, foot-stomping state funeral Friday as presidents, princes and left-wing glitterati looked on.
Chavez’s hand-picked successor emotionally eulogized the fallen leader at the military academy where the funeral was held, his voice booming over Chavez’s flag-draped casket as he pledged eternal loyalty in a ceremony that at times smacked of a political rally.
“Here we are, Comandante, your men, on their feet,” Nicolas Maduro shouted, government officials rising behind him. “All your men and women … loyal until beyond death.”
“Chavez Lives!” he declared. “Mission Accomplished!”
But all was not peace and harmony in a country deeply divided by Chavez’s 14 years in power.
Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles called Maduro a bald-faced liar and accused him of using the funeral to campaign for president. The opposition said it would boycott Maduro’s swearing-in later Friday at the National Assembly, calling it unconstitutional, and Capriles spoke condescendingly of Maduro, calling him “boy.”
Capriles, who is likely to face Maduro in a special presidential election that is supposed to be called within 30 days of Chavez’s death, said the opposition had asked to attend Chavez’s funeral, but was told “better that you don’t come.”
The funeral began with Venezuela’s national youth orchestra singing the national anthem, led by famed conductor Gustavo Dudamel. A government-allied congressman later belted out cowboy songs from Chavez’s native Barinas state.
The streets outside the military academy took on a carnival atmosphere, with military bands launching into marches and an expanse of supporters wearing the red of Chavez’s socialist party. Street vendors sold paper replicas of the presidential sash, which many people in the line slipped over their shoulder.
Throngs watched the ceremony on huge monitors under the blazing sun, while a line to see Chavez’s body stretched 1½ miles but was halted as the funeral got under way.
In the funeral hall, more than 30 political leaders including Cuba’s Raul Castro, Spanish Crown Prince Felipe de Borbon, and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stood at attention before Chavez’s flag-draped coffin, which was closed for the ceremony.
Maduro said that no Venezuelan leader, even Bolivar, who died in exile, faced and overcame such treachery and opposition as Chavez, who succumbed to cancer on Tuesday, at the age of 58
“Here you are, unconquered, pure, transparent, unique, true and always alive,” Maduro shouted as many in attendance cried. “Comandante, they couldn’t defeat you and they will never, ever defeat us.”
Despite the blustery language of his speech and the expulsion on Tuesday of two U.S. military attaches on suspicion of spying, Maduro made a point of welcoming the U.S. delegation led by Rep. Gregory Meeks, a New York Democrat, and former Rep. William Delahunt, a Democrat from Massachusetts. Chavez often railed against America even as he sold the country billions of dollars in oil each year.
State Department officials have voiced hope that Maduro will prove a more pragmatic leader than the often bombastic Chavez, assuming he wins a full term.
Television cameras captured Hollywood star Sean Penn in attendance at the funeral, while the Rev. Jesse Jackson preached rapprochement between his country and Venezuela.
“We pray to God today that you will heal the breach between the U.S. and Venezuela,” Jackson said.
But U.S. enemies such as Castro and Ahmadinejad also won loud applause.
Maduro announced Thursday that the government would embalm Chavez’s body and put it on permanent display.