Champagne, relief as Chavez's detractors yearn for new era

CARACAS Fri Mar 8, 2013 5:47am EST

People paint a mural depicting the eyes of Venezuela's late President Hugo Chavez in Caracas March 7, 2013. REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez

People paint a mural depicting the eyes of Venezuela's late President Hugo Chavez in Caracas March 7, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Jorge Dan Lopez

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CARACAS (Reuters) - As throngs of mourners pay homage to Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, his opponents are praying his self-declared socialist revolution will die with him, and some are even breaking out the champagne.

Hiking in a leafy park in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods of Caracas, far from the emotional scenes where Chavez lay in state, retired documentary maker Cesar Caballero sighed with deep relief at the president's demise.

"Sometimes nature steps in and eliminates things that are just no good," Caballero, 66, said from beneath a baseball cap embroidered with "Kansas", looking out over elegant gated homes nearby that mark a chasm with sprawling slums across town.

"He has done more damage to Venezuela than anyone else," Caballero said of Chavez, who died on Tuesday after a two-year fight with cancer. "The country is broken in two parts, each hates the other. Chavez did that."

Chavez is celebrated by Venezuela's poorest for his heavy spending on social programs, nationalizations and fiery rhetoric against the United States.

In intensely emotional scenes, tens of thousands of people queued for hours on Thursday at a military base in southern Caracas to see his remains as they lay in state.

Small children and elderly women fainted in the searing heat as the chaotic throng tried to surge past a bottleneck of soldiers. A huge TV screen showed supporters as they passed the coffin, saluting, crying and in some cases collapsing in grief.

"He hasn't gone, he will live on through us," chanted a crowd of young men, elderly women and mothers with children on their shoulders.

But Chavez's 14-year rule polarized the oil-rich South American country and critics say he was a despot who wrecked the economy, bullied opponents and drove investors and middle-class families away.

Venezuela has long struggled with a huge divide between rich and poor, and Chavez's blend of nationalism and fervent socialism deepened it. As much as he was loved by many of the poor, he was despised by others.

From Caracas to Miami, a haven for Venezuelan self-exiles, some popped champagne corks to celebrate the former paratrooper's death.

"Call me irreligious, offensive, whatever you like, but I opened a bottle of champagne with my family when I heard the news," said the wife of a wealthy Venezuelan businessman in Caracas, asking not to be named to avoid retribution.

"God forgive me for saying it, but I swear he did so much damage to this country that he deserved this."

When news of his death broke on Tuesday, social media such as Facebook and Twitter exploded with tributes to Chavez but among them there were messages of joy.

One tweet read: "I know this is cruel but we just toasted!"

ELECTION AHEAD

Well-to-do youths scent a new era of opportunity now that the larger-than-life Chavez, who routinely insulted Venezuela's "bourgeoisie," has left the stage, although they know that much will depend on who wins the election to succeed him.

Chavez's own vice-president, Nicolas Maduro, has taken over as acting president and is drawing strong support, in large part because Chavez anointed him as his chosen successor before dying.

The opposition candidate will be Henrique Capriles, a centrist state governor who lost to Chavez at the last election in October but pulled in 44 percent of the vote.

Dressed in elegant running gear in an affluent quarter of the capital, 20-year-old engineering student Ana Gravalos said on Thursday that she hopes Capriles will beat Maduro and put the economy on a market-friendly course.

"Things have been going from bad to worse. Look at the state the economy is in," she said. "There are no good jobs, companies have been reluctant to invest. I hope things change."

A recent poll showed Maduro with a big lead over Capriles.

Maduro has vowed to continue where Chavez left off and he is almost certain to get another boost with the outpouring of emotion from Chavez's supporters this week.

Clutching an Action Man-style Chavez doll replete with red beret and military fatigues, and wearing a Chavez T-shirt and matching Chavez earrings and scarf, 55-year-old Ana Maria Colmenares welled up with tears after walking past his coffin.

"Chavez is in my heart," she said, describing how Chavez's face was bloated from the effects of his treatment.

"He freed the poor. He gave us jobs, houses and education," she said. "He is my Commander ... May his soul watch over us."

Many Venezuelans say bridging the divide between rich and poor, and softening the vitriolic rhetoric, will be crucial for hopes of political reconciliation, closer ties with Western powers and a less volatile economy.

"The model is not a failure. But we need change. What this society needs is reconciliation," said 65-year-old Iraides Ramirez. He said he is rooting for Maduro and that Chavez had improved the lives of people neglected by previous governments.

"We, the poor, were invisible. The rich called us 'the dirty'. Chavez changed that."

(Additional reporting by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Daniel Wallis, Kieran Murray and Paul Simao)

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