World leaders, athletes and left-wing celebrities gathered at a music-filled state funeral honouring Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez today, with multitudes waiting outside the venue.
The funeral at a military academy where Mr Chavez has been lying in state 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 Mr Chavez’s native Barinas state.
The streets outside took on a carnival atmosphere, with military bands launching into marches and an expanse of supporters wearing the red of Mr 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, with some complaining of a lack of bottled water and toilet facilities. A line to see Mr Chavez’s body stretched a mile and a half, but was halted as the funeral got under way.
In the funeral hall, more than 30 political leaders including Cuba’s Raul Castro and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stood to attention before Mr Chavez’s flag-draped coffin.
Many of them were welcomed by Nicolas Maduro, the vice president who will later be sworn in as interim president after being selected as successor by Mr Chavez.
The glass-topped coffin, which has been open since Wednesday, was shut for the funeral.
Democrats Gregory Meeks and William Delahunt represented the US, which Mr Chavez often railed against even as he sold the country billions of dollars in oil each year.
The Rev Jesse Jackson was called on to speak, and television cameras also captured Hollywood star Sean Penn in attendance.
“It is a great pain for us because we have lost a friend,” Mr Ahmadinejad said upon his arrival at the airport overnight. “I feel like I have lost myself, but I am sure that he still lives. Chavez will never die. His spirit and soul live on in each of our hearts.”
Venezuela has said it will embalm Mr Chavez’s body and put it on permanent display, a decision that touched off strong passions on both sides of this deeply divided country, which he ruled for 14 years before succumbing to cancer on Tuesday, at the age of 58.
Most of the normally traffic-choked streets of Caracas were empty, with schools and many businesses shuttered. The government also prohibited alcohol sales.
The government gave national and international media no direct access to the funeral, a measure of the strict control with which Mr Chavez and his top lieutenants have controlled the country for years.
Following the funeral, National Assembly speaker Diosdado Cabello will swear in Mr Maduro as interim president, as Mr Chavez desired, despite complaints by the opposition that Mr Cabello is the rightful holder of that post under the constitution.
Mr Cabello announced that the swearing-in will be held at the same military academy complex where Mr Chavez’s body is lying in state. Normally, presidents in Venezuela are sworn in at the National Assembly.
In announcing the opposition boycott, spokesman Angel Medina said Mr Maduro’s ascension is “a violation of the constitutional order”.
“Venezuelans should walk along the path of constitutionality. Today, more than ever we reject that they use the name of the president of the republic, who today is being buried, for political ends,” he said.
Critics believe Venezuela’s 1999 charter stipulates that the speaker of the National Assembly take power in the event of a presidential death.
The constitution says elections must be held within 30 days of Mr Chavez’s March 5 death, though the government has not set a date. Mr Maduro has announced he will be the candidate of Mr Chavez’s ruling socialist party against likely opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, and many expect him to ride the wave of emotion to victory.