CARACAS (Reuters) - Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans were on the streets again on Friday at a funeral parade for Hugo Chavez amid opposition protests that the government was exploiting his death to win the election.
Chavez’s remains were transported for about 12 miles through Caracas from an army academy to a military museum on a hillside where the former soldier launched his political career with a failed coup in 1992.
The events were the culmination of 10 days of official mourning in the South American OPEC nation led by the flamboyant socialist president for 14 years until his death from cancer.
A state funeral was held a week ago.
“You are a giant,” his daughter Maria Gabriela said in an emotional religious service before the procession began.
“Fly freely and breathe deep with the winds of the hurricane. We will care for your fatherland and defend your legacy. You will never leave, your flame is in our hands.”
Though his remains will for now be placed in the museum on the edge of the populous January 23 neighborhood - arguably the most militantly pro-Chavez zone in the country - there was still doubt over his final resting place.
The government wanted to embalm Chavez “for eternity” in the style of Soviet leaders Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin and China’s Mao Zedong. But embarrassingly, officials said the process should have started earlier and confirmed on Friday that it had been ruled out.
A Russian medical team told the government the body would have to be taken to Russia for seven to eight months to carry out the procedure, Venezuela’s information minister said.
Parliament had been due to debate a motion this week to amend the constitution so that Chavez’s body could be buried in the National Pantheon, close to the remains of his idol and South American independence hero Simon Bolivar.
The constitution states that honor can only be accorded to leaders 25 years after their death.
But the debate was delayed amid talk Chavez’s corpse might instead be taken to his hometown Sabaneta, in the Venezuelan “llanos,” or plains, to fulfill his oft-stated wish to lie alongside the grandmother who raised him in a mud-floor home.
Crowds of red-shirted “Chavistas” lined the streets for Friday’s parade. Some wore headbands with the name of acting President Nicolas Maduro, who was picked by Chavez as his preferred successor. He is running in an April 14 vote.
“Chavez, I promise you, my vote is for Maduro,” read the headbands, repeating a slogan at pro-government rallies.
“I’ve got 500 and I‘m going to sell them all easily. Chavez left Maduro in charge and he will be president,” said Miguel Angel, 43, selling the headbands.
The opposition, whose presidential candidate Henrique Capriles faces a tough battle to beat Maduro amid so much emotion over Chavez, says the government is mawkishly protracting the mourning and exploiting his coffin as a campaign prop.
Capriles, a 40-year-old state governor who views Brazil as his political and economic model, plans to begin campaigning around the country over the weekend.
“We urge those indiscriminately using the president’s name for the capture of votes to halt this perverse method of electoral proselytism,” an opposition communique said.
“Let’s have a decent campaign, without unfair advantages or abuses of power.”
That, many analysts say, looks unlikely given the government’s vastly superior financial resources and pro-government supporters’ dominance of state institutions.
Fighting back against that impression, however, the government says Capriles is a well-financed puppet of both Venezuela’s powerful and wealthy elite and the U.S. government.
The deification of Chavez in death has taken surreal turns.
Maduro suggested that in heaven Chavez helped persuade Christ to choose a Latin American pope.
And the state oil company PDVSA has been distributing a flyer titled “Chavez Crucified” amplifying the government’s accusation that he may have been infected with cancer by his enemies.
“Chavez is a Christ, he suffered for his people, he extinguished himself in their service, he suffered his own C Calvary, he was assassinated by imperialists, he died young ... and he performed miracles in life,” it said.
That level of eulogy is drawing scorn in some circles for a man who, though loved by millions of Venezuela’s poor for his welfare policies and down-to-earth style, was also hated as an authoritarian bully by large segments of society.
The election campaign has started in a nasty atmosphere, with both camps accusing each other of dirty tricks, and Capriles and Maduro landing highly personalized blows.
Photos of guns aimed at TVs showing Capriles have been circulating, while an opposition newspaper this week juxtaposed a photo of Maduro next to Hitler giving a Nazi salute.
Maduro, a 50-year-old former bus driver who is trumpeting his working-class roots like Chavez, has a solid lead over Capriles of more than 10 percentage points, according to two recent opinion polls. Both came before Chavez’s death.
At stake in the upcoming election is not only the future of Chavez’s leftist revolution but also the continuation of Venezuelan oil subsidies and other aid crucial to the economies of leftist allies around Latin America, from Cuba to Bolivia.
Venezuela boasts the world’s largest oil reserves.
Additional reporting by Daniel Wallis and Mario Naranjo; Editing by Vicki Allen and Lisa Shumaker