Fiery funeral for Venezuela's Chavez

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Associated Press

Posted on March 9, 2013 at 12:35 AM

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Hugo Chavez was lauded as a modern-day reincarnation of Latin American liberator Simon Bolivar at a fiery, foot-stomping state funeral Friday, hours before his handpicked successor was sworn in as acting president over the fierce objections of the opposition.

Nicolas Maduro took the oath of office in the National Assembly before ruling party legislators, dignitaries and a boisterous crowd of sympathizers that chanted "Chavez lives! Maduro carries on!" Holding up a tiny blue-bound booklet of Venezuela's 1999 constitution in his right hand, Maduro pledged his "most absolute loyalty" to Chavez.

He broke into tears as he spoke of his mentor during a strident acceptance speech that included numerous attacks on the United States, capitalist elites and the international media.

Maduro also claimed the allegiance of Venezuela's army, calling it "the armed forces of Chavez" as he pumped his fist in the air, a gesture that was reciprocated by the defense minister watching from the gallery. Critics have voiced increasing concern about the overt support the military has shown to the ruling party since Chavez's death despite a ban on the army's participation in politics.

The opposition largely boycotted the swearing-in, calling it unconstitutional. Henrique Capriles, Maduro's likely opponent in presidential election that must be called within 30 days, spoke condescendingly of the former bus driver and union leader, referring to him as "boy" and accusing him of "shamelessly" lying to the country.

At Chavez's state funeral earlier in the day, Maduro stood before an assemblage of presidents, princes and left-wing glitterati, speaking in a booming voice over the flag-draped casket in a ceremony that at times smacked of a political rally.

"Here we are, Comandante, your men, on their feet," Maduro shouted, government officials rising behind him. "All your men and women ... loyal until beyond death."

The funeral 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 Chavez's native Barinas state.

The streets outside the military academy took on a carnival atmosphere, with military bands launching into marches and an expanse of supporters wearing the red of Chavez's socialist party. Street vendors sold paper replicas of the presidential sash, which many people in the line slipped over their shoulders.

Throngs watched the ceremony on huge monitors under the blazing sun. A line of people waiting to see Chavez's body stretched 1 ½ miles (2 kilometers), but the viewing was halted as the funeral got under way.

In the funeral hall, more than 30 political leaders including Cuba's Raul Castro, Spanish Crown Prince Felipe de Borbon, and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stood at attention before Chavez's flag-draped coffin, which was closed for the ceremony.

Maduro said that no Venezuelan leader, even Bolivar, who died in exile, faced and overcame such treachery and opposition as Chavez, who succumbed to cancer Tuesday at age 58

"Here you are, unconquered, pure, transparent, unique, true and always alive," Maduro shouted as many in attendance cried. "Comandante, they couldn't defeat you and they will never, ever defeat us."

Despite the blustery language of his speech and the expulsion on Tuesday of two U.S. military attaches on suspicion of spying, Maduro made a point of welcoming the U.S. delegation led by Rep. Gregory Meeks, a New York Democrat, and former Rep. William Delahunt, a Democrat from Massachusetts. Chavez often railed against the U.S. even as he sold the country billions of dollars in oil each year.

State Department officials have voiced hope that Maduro will prove a more pragmatic leader than the often bombastic Chavez, assuming he wins a full term.

Television cameras captured Hollywood star Sean Penn at the funeral, while the Rev. Jesse Jackson preached rapprochement between his country and Venezuela.

"We pray to God today that you will heal the breach between the U.S. and Venezuela," Jackson said. He later attended Maduro's swearing-in, and was hailed by the acting president as "a good man from the United States."

U.S. enemies such as Castro and Ahmadinejad won loud applause.

"It is a great pain for us because we have lost a friend," Ahmadinejad said upon his arrival at the airport the night before. "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."

Maduro announced Thursday that the government would embalm Chavez's body and put it on permanent display, a decision that touched off strong passions on both sides.

Most of the normally traffic-choked streets of Caracas were empty, with schools and many businesses shuttered. The government also prohibited alcohol sales.

Venezuelans watched the funeral from cafes, with many saying they were flattered to be the subject of the world's attention.

"If my Comandante was such a divisive man who fought with everyone and with other countries, wouldn't he be alone (at his funeral)?" asked Argenis Urbina, a 51-year-old bookseller who was riveted to the coverage on TV.

Others said they were put off by what they saw as an excess of pomp, particularly the plan to put Chavez's body on display.

"He was a president, and I would say not a good one. Not a hero," said Gloria Ocampos, a retired office manager. "He should be buried, just like any other president. They are treating him like he was the father of the country ... It's crazy."

Some 300 people watched the funeral on screens set up in the Simon Bolivar plaza in Chavez's plains hometown of Sabaneta, where mourners had laid out flowers, candles and photos of the late leader.

Chavez was particularly beloved by the poor, whose lot he championed. But critics say he left his successors a monumental task, with annual inflation of more than 20 percent and public debt that quadrupled to more than $100 billion. Crime is endemic and Chavez's chaotic management style has been blamed for a breakdown in infrastructure, particularly in the key oil industry.

In an hour-long television address, Capriles said the opposition had asked to attend Chavez's funeral, but was told "better that you don't come." He said he had withheld criticism since Chavez's death out of respect, but could no longer hold his tongue at what he saw as a power grab by Maduro.

"I tell you clearly, Nicolas, I am not going to speak of the times you lied to the country, shamelessly," Capriles said. "The people have not voted for you, boy."

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Associated Press writers E. Eduardo Castillo, Christopher Toothaker and Paul Haven contributed to this report.

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Vivian Sequera on Twitter: www.twitter.com/VivianSequera

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