Venezuelans are paying their respects to former President Hugo Chavez today, filing past an open casket in a military academy after his body was carried through the streets of Caracas yesterday.
Chavez’s body is laying in state in the capital until a funeral tomorrow. Among leaders arriving early and attending a wake last night were Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and Bolivia’s Evo Morales.
“Chavez lives, the fight continues,” officials including Vice President Nicolas Maduro shouted in unison as they walked past the flag-draped casket holding the socialist leader.
Maduro, in his first decree as acting president, declared seven days of national mourning, and stores closed across the capital as the shock of Chavez’s March 5 passing after a two- year battle with cancer settles in. He has not yet been sworn in as acting president, and Venezuelan state media is continuing to refer to him as Vice President.
The government took control of the nation’s airwaves yesterday for most of the day to broadcast live coverage of the procession, which drew tens of thousands of supporters wearing the red shirts that became a symbol of Chavez’s 21st-century socialism. Several were shown crying, waving Venezuelan flags and carrying paintings of Chavez and his hero Simon Bolivar, the country’s 19th century liberator.
Over two million people have participated in the funeral procession, Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said today on state television, adding that not all mourners would be able to see Chavez’s body.
Twenty-two heads of state will attend Chavez’s funeral tomorrow, Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said today on state television. He said the media should refrain from making “political analysis” at this time.
Vigils and marches of solidarity were also held at Venezuelan embassies throughout Latin American, including Peru, Chile and Colombia, whose business-friendly governments have shunned the anti-American rhetoric favored by Chavez. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad likened Chavez to Jesus Christ, while condolences also arrived from the leaders of Russia and China, which were among Chavez’s biggest trading partners.
Ahmadinejad will leave Tehran today to travel to Caracas for the funeral, state-run Fars news agency reported late yesterday, without saying where it got the information.
Chavez died of a heart attack and in his final moments expressed a desire to continue live, the Associated Press reported, citing General Jose Ornella, the head of Venezuela’s presidential guard, who said he was with Chavez at the moment.
An official in the information ministry, who asked not to be identified because of policy, said he could not immediately comment on the AP report.
Even as the grieving intensifies, the battle to fill the void left by Chavez was getting under way. According to Venezuela’s constitution, an election to choose Chavez’s successor must be called within 30 days.
Maduro, who Chavez endorsed before undergoing surgery in Cuba for the last time in December, tried to project unity. At the wake he stood for a moment of silence next to Chavez’s coffin with National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, who is seen as a potential rival.
The armed forces also appeared to be lining up behind Maduro, who unlike Chavez, a former tank commander, doesn’t have any military experience.
“Now, more than ever, the Venezuelan people and armed forces are united to complete Chavez’s mission, which is to make Maduro the next Venezuelan president,” Defense Minister David Molero said today on state television. “The armed forces will never raise its weapons against the people again.”
Opposition parties may nominate Miranda state Governor Henrique Capriles Radonski as their candidate to compete in the snap vote. While a final decision won’t be taken until after Chavez’s funeral, “Capriles is the only name that’s on the table,” Ramon Jose Medina, deputy leader of the opposition alliance, said in a phone interview after a full day of meetings with party members.
Capriles lost to Chavez by 11 percentage points in an October vote.
Venezuela’s dollar-denominated bonds, which are rated four levels below investment grade by Standard & Poor’s, have rallied 25 percent over the past year, swelling their return to 692 percent since Chavez’s inauguration in 1999.
They fell for a third day today, with the yield on 9.25 percent bonds due in September 2027 climbing 28 basis points to 9.54 percent at 11:30 a.m. in New York, the highest since Dec. 4. The price fell 2.15 cents to 97.76 cents on the dollar, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Barclays Plc today cut its debt rating on Venezuela debt to neutral from overweight because of uncertainty “that the government might not strictly follow” the constitution, analysts Alejandro Grisanti and Donato Guarino said today in an e-mailed report.
“We remain constructive on the credit over the longer horizon, given the growth potential driven by oil reserves and willingness to pay,” they wrote.
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