Venezuelans grieve for Chavez

Supporters of Hugo Chavez paraded his coffin through the streets of Caracas.

Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez on 2 June 2012. Picture: AFP

CARACAS - Shattered supporters of Hugo Chavez paraded his coffin through the streets of Caracas on Wednesday in a flood of emotion allies hope will help his deputy win an election due in the coming weeks and keep his self-styled revolution alive.

Tens of thousands of "Chavistas" marched behind the remains of the flamboyant and outspoken president, draped in Venezuela's blue, red and yellow national flag.

Many wept as a hearse flanked by soldiers in red berets carried his coffin through downtown Caracas and loudspeakers played Chavez's voice singing songs.

Ending one of Latin America's most remarkable populist rules, Chavez died on Tuesday at 58 after a two-year battle with cancer that was first detected in his pelvis.

His body will be taken to a military academy on Wednesday to lie in state for three days.

The future of Chavez's leftist policies, which won him the adoration of poor Venezuelans but infuriated opponents who denounced him as a dictator, now rests on the shoulders of Vice President Nicolas Maduro, the man he tapped to succeed him.

"In the immense pain of this historic tragedy that has affected our fatherland, we call on all the compatriots to be vigilant for peace, love, respect and tranquillity," Maduro said. "We ask our people to channel this pain into peace."

Maduro, a 50-year-old former bus driver and union leader, will probably face Henrique Capriles, governor of Miranda state, in the next election in the OPEC nation with the world's largest oil reserves.

The stakes are huge for the region, given the crucial economic aid and cheap fuel the Chavez government supplied to allies across Latin America and the Caribbean.

Authorities said the vote would be called within 30 days, as stipulated by the constitution, but did not specify the date.

One recent opinion poll gave Maduro a strong lead over Capriles, in part because he has received Chavez's blessing as his heir apparent, and he is likely to benefit from the surge of emotion following the president's death.

The tall, moustachioed Maduro has long been a close ally of Chavez. He immediately pledged to continue his legacy and is unlikely to make major policy changes soon.

Maduro will now focus on marshalling support from Chavez's diverse coalition, which includes leftist ideologues, business leaders and radical armed groups called "colectivos."

Some have suggested he might try to ease tensions with Western investors and the U.S. government. Yet hours before Chavez's death, Maduro alleged that "imperialist" enemies had infected the president with cancer and he expelled two U.S. diplomats accused of conspiring with domestic opponents.

'DON'T BE ANXIOUS'

A victory by Capriles, 40, a centrist politician who calls Brazil his model for Venezuela, would bring big changes and be welcomed by business groups, although he would probably move cautiously to lower the risk of political instability.

"This is not the time to stress what separates us," Capriles said in a condolence message, calling for unity and respect for the loss that many felt after Chavez's death.

"There are thousands, maybe millions, of Venezuelans asking themselves what will happen, who even feel fear ... Don't be scared. Don't be anxious. Between us all, we're going to guarantee the peace this beloved country deserves."

Military commanders pledged loyalty to Maduro, who will be Venezuela's caretaker leader until the election.

Soldiers fired 21-gun salutes in barracks across Venezuela at 8 a.m. to honour Chavez.

It was not immediately clear where Chavez would be buried. He had ordered a striking new mausoleum built in downtown Caracas for the remains of independence hero Simon Bolivar, his inspiration, and it is due to be finished soon.

"To the pantheon!" shouted Chavez supporters during Wednesday's parade, which was led by Maduro walking just in front of the cortege.

Influential "Chavista" legislator Freddy Bernal said Chavez should be laid to rest there too: "For his political brilliance and commitment to the country, commander Chavez has earned his place beside the liberator Simon Bolivar in the pantheon."

Much of Caracas was quiet overnight, with streets deserted, especially in wealthier districts. Many shops locked their doors in fear of looting as news of Chavez's death spread.

There were long lines outside gasoline stations.

Hundreds of emotional "Chavista" loyalists stayed outside the military hospital where he spent his last two weeks. A female TV reporter from neighbouring Colombia was beaten up, and gunshots were fired in the air.

"Chavez lives, the fight continues!" supporters shouted in the streets.

Although they had weeks to come to terms with Chavez's likely demise, many of his supporters were overcome with grief.

"He was our father," said Nancy Jotiya, 56, sobbing in the city's central Plaza Bolivar. "He taught us to defend ourselves. Chavismo is not over! We are the people. We will fight!"

There was sadness in other Latin American countries too, especially those run by leftist friends of Chavez.

Bolivian President Evo Morales flew in stony-faced on Wednesday to join the mourning. The presidents of Argentina and Uruguay also arrived before dawn, state media said.