CARACAS, Venezuela — A flag-draped coffin carrying the body of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez floated over a sea of supporters Wednesday 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 worst a day after Chavez succumbed to cancer.
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 fight goes on! Chavez lives!” shouted the mourners in unison, many through eyes red from crying late into the night.
Chavez’s bereaved mother Elena Frias de Chavez leaned against her son’s casket, while a priest read a prayer before the procession left the military hospital where Chavez died at the age of 58. Vice President Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’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 Chavez-less era begins,” declared a front-page headline in Caracas’s El Universal newspaper.
But even in death, Chavez’s orders were being heeded in a country covered with posters bearing his image and graffiti pledging “We are all Chavez!”
Maduro will continue to run Venezuela as interim president and will stand as candidate of Chavez’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.
For die-hard Chavistas who camped out all night outside the military hospital, Wednesday was the first full day without a leader.
many described as a father figure, an icon in the mold of the early-19th century liberator Simon Bolivar. Others saw the death of a man who presided over Venezuela as a virtual one-man show as an opportunity to turn back the clock on his socialist policies.
For both sides, uncertainty ruled the day.
It was not immediately clear when the presidential vote would be held, or where or when Chavez would be buried following Friday’s pageant-filled funeral.
Venezuela’s constitution specifies that the speaker of the National Assembly, currently Diosdado Cabello, should assume the interim presidency if a president can’t be sworn in.
But critics say the officials left in charge by Chavez before he went to Cuba in December for his fourth cancer surgery have not been assiduous about heeding the constitution, and human rights and free speech activists are concerned they will flaunt the rule of law. Many took to Twitter to cite Article 233 of the constitution, which they said establishes Cabello as the rightful interim president.
Just a few hours before announcing Chavez’s death, Maduro virulently accused foreign and domestic enemies, clearly including the United States, of trying to undermine Venezuelan democracy. The government said two U.S. military attaches had been expelled for allegedly trying to destabilize the nation, and Maduro insisted that Chavez was purposefully “attacked” with cancer. He said a scientific commission would be set up to investigate.
There has been no word on any plans for an autopsy, and while the government has said Chavez 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.