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Venezuelans line streets for Chavez procession

Wednesday, March 6, 2013 - 10:44pm

As the political ramifications of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's death remained uncertain, his followers demonstrated Wednesday in plazas nationwide to show they support a continuation of his policies.

"Take my life, Lord, but don't take that of the president!" wailed an older woman who was among a group of mourners in Bolivar Square in Sabaneta in Barinas State, Chavez's birthplace in the country's northwest. "Without him, we are left with nothing. He's the only president who has helped us."

"I'm the beneficiary of education, I'm the beneficiary of an honorable, beautiful house, I'm the beneficiary of an honorable job," said a woman in her 20s. "President, wherever you are, we are going to miss you forever."

"I hope we will continue down the path that he showed us," said one man. "Let's continue with socialism, because that is the only path. Commandant Chavez lives and will live in our hearts."

Thousands of Venezuelans lined the streets of the capital, Caracas, Wednesday morning as Chavez's remains were taken from the military hospital where he died to the Fuerte Tiuna Military Academy.

Soldiers held Chavez's simple wooden casket, which was draped with the national flag, as a priest recited a prayer and blessing over it. The casket was placed atop a hearse, which was festooned with flowers and wreaths and driven slowly toward the military academy.

The streets transformed into a sea of green and red, as soldiers and red-clad supporters followed the procession.

Some wept as the casket passed in front of them, while others stretched out their arms to take pictures with their phones.

"Chavez to the pantheon! Chavez to the pantheon!" the crowd chanted, referring to the country's National Pantheon, which houses the remains of Chavez's hero, South American liberator Simon Bolivar, and other Venezuelan luminaries.

The body's arrival at the academy, where it is to lie in state until Friday morning's state funeral, was broadcast live on state television.

A number of presidents -- including Uruguay's Jose Mujica, Argentina's Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and Bolivia's Evo Morales -- have already arrived in the country for the funeral.

The country has declared seven days of mourning, closed schools for the rest of the week and deployed armed forces to "guarantee peace."

For its part, Venezuela's Interior Ministry sought to guarantee sobriety. It said in a statement that it had banned the sale, distribution and consumption of alcohol through March 12 "to guarantee the physical integrity of individuals with the intention to maintain internal order and normal development of the country's actions."

The Chavez faithful were most visible Wednesday, but a sizable and strong opposition to the ruling party remains.

One 27-year-old man said in a CNN iReport that he fled Venezuela a decade ago because he believed there was no future there under Chavez.

"I left Venezuela because my brother got kidnapped, our house got burglarized, cars stolen," Carlos Quijada said. "My parents had an import business and the currency controls made it impossible for them to import anything anymore."

Quijada said he hoped that things would improve with Chavez's death.

"My life was completely altered because of that man," he said. "And I will not hide the fact that I am happy that he is no longer alive."

A new election will be held within 30 days, possibly signaling a new path for the oil-rich nation.

Opposition politicians have not said who will represent them in the election. But as speculation mounted about Chavez's health in recent weeks, many turned to Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chavez in October's presidential contest.

On Tuesday, Capriles called for a national dialogue including all Venezuelans, not just Chavez's supporters.

"Today there are thousands, maybe millions, of Venezuelans who are asking themselves what will happen, who feel anxiety, and including those who feel afraid," Capriles said.

Vice President Nicolas Maduro, the interim president, has made no mention in public of running for election, but he is widely expected to be the United Socialist Party of Venezuela's candidate for the job.

During the three months that Chavez was undergoing treatment and absent from the political stage, Maduro has been highly visible. His addresses to political rallies and updates about the president on national television have drawn support from Chavez loyalists.

Opposition critics said he was campaigning for office, a claim the government denied. Even as it was announced that Maduro would temporarily assume the presidency, some questioned whether that was constitutional because Chavez missed his inauguration while being treated in Cuba for cancer and was never officially sworn in.

"Diosdado Cabello, a key ally whose biography is similar to Chavez's, would be a stronger bet" than Maduro to defeat Capriles, said Daniel Greenberg, a professor of history and founder of the Institute of Latin American Service and Studies at Pace University in New York. "If Capriles wins, Chavez's reforms will most likely be scaled back rather than dismantled. Either way, Venezuela without Chavez will be a vastly different place."

At the United Nations, the Security Council held a minute of silence in Chavez's honor.

It was at a U.N. General Assembly meeting in 2006 that Chavez bluntly referred to his U.S. counterpart, former President George W. Bush, who had addressed the world body the day before from the same lectern, as "the devil." "The devil came here yesterday," Chavez said. "And it smells of sulfur still today."

-- CNN's Elwyn Lopez, Catherine E. Shoichet, Tom Watkins and Dana Ford contributed to this report.
 

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