Chávez died on Tuesday aged 58 after a two-year battle with cancer, devastating millions of supporters who loved him for putting the country’s vast oil wealth at their service, but giving hope to foes who saw him as a dictator.
Huge crowds of “Chávistas” arrived early for the ceremony at a military academy where his body has been lying in state. Many were dressed in the red of the ruling Socialist Party, carrying his picture and waving Venezuelan flags.
“Chávez did not die, he multiplied!” they chanted. “Chávez lives! The revolution goes on!”
The late president’s body is to be embalmed and shown “for eternity” at a military museum — similar to how communist leaders Lenin, Stalin, and Mao were treated after their deaths.
His remains will lie in state for an extra seven days to accommodate the millions of Venezuelans who still want to pay their last respects to a man who will be remembered as one of the world’s most colourful and controversial populist leaders.
“All these measures are being taken so that the people can be with their leader forever,” said Chávez’s preferred successor and acting president, Nicolas Maduro. He was sworn in as caretaker leader after the funeral.
More than 2m people have so far filed past Chávez’s coffin behind a red rope at the grandiose military academy, many sobbing, some saluting or crossing themselves.
Among the leaders gathering in Caracas were close allies such as Ecuadorean president Rafael Correa, Brazil’s current and former leaders, Dilma Rousseff and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and Cuban president Raúl Castro.
“Most importantly, he left undefeated,” Castro said, referring to Chávez’s four presidential election wins, among a string of other ballot victories in his 14-year rule.
“He was invincible. He left victorious and no one can take that away. It is fixed in history,” Castro added.