Venezuelans pour out grief; some fear post-Chavez future

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CARACAS, Venezuela -- By the hundreds of thousands, Hugo Chavez's tearful supporters carried their dead president through streets still plastered with his smiling image Wednesday, an epic farewell to a larger-than-life leader remembered simply as "our commander."

In a display of raw and, at times, unruly emotion, generations of Venezuelans -- many dressed in the red of Mr. Chavez's socialist party -- filled Caracas' streets to remember the man who dominated their country for 14 years before succumbing to cancer.

Mr. Chavez's flag-draped coffin floated over hundreds of thousands of supporters as it made its way atop an open hearse on a seven-hour journey to a military academy in the capital, where it will lie in state. Mourners, many of them weeping, lined the streets or walked with the casket, which followed the lead of a grim drum major dressed in the party's red. They shouted "nuestro comandante" -- "our commander," in English -- as the coffin passed.

But even amid the mass grief, questions about Venezuela's future could not be put off for long, with worries amplified by the government's lack of regard for the letter of the constitution, and the military's eagerness to choose political sides.

Vice President Nicolas Maduro, the late president's hand-picked successor, and Bolivian President Evo Morales, one of his staunchest allies, mingled with the crowd -- at one point falling to the ground in the jostle of bodies pushing in every direction. Military officers and Cabinet members ringed the president's coffin, stone-faced with grief.

Mr. 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 he died Tuesday at age 58. His funeral is set for Friday.

Others who bitterly opposed Mr. Chavez's take-no-prisoners brand of socialism said they were sorry for his death, but hopeful that it would usher in a less confrontational, more business-friendly era in this major oil-producing nation. Under his leadership, the state expropriated key industries, raised taxes on the rich and forced many foes into exile.

Even as Chavistas said their goodbyes, a sense of foreboding gripped the nation as it awaited word on what might come next. Many Venezuelans, fearful of possible violence, stocked up on food and fuel as the country pondered whether the former paratrooper's socialist agenda would survive him, and for how long.

The 1999 constitution that Mr. Chavez himself pushed through mandates that elections be called within 30 days, but his top lieutenants have not always stuck to the letter of the law. The charter clearly states that the National Assembly speaker, now Diosdado Cabello, should become interim president if a head of state is forced to leave office within three years of his election. Mr. Chavez was re-elected only in October.

But Mr. Chavez anointed Mr. Maduro for that role, and the vice president has assumed the mantle, even as the government announced that he would represent the ruling socialist party in the presidential vote.

Some took to Twitter to denounce the move, citing Article 233 of the constitution, which establishes Mr. Cabello as the rightful president.

The military also appears to be showing firm support for Mr. Maduro, despite a constitutional mandate that it play no role in politics.

• Chavez obituary, Page B-3.

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