* Larger-than-life figure who spoke for poor
* Fervor takes on religious overtones
By Terry Wade
CARACAS, March 6 Deceased Venezuelan leader Hugo
Chavez was hailed by weeping supporters on Wednesday as a
spiritual father figure who sacrificed his life for his country.
The 58-year-old socialist president succumbed to cancer on
Tuesday after 14 years in power that polarized a country with
vast oil reserves by sidelining traditional elites in favor of
millions mired in poverty.
Supporters say Chavez, a larger-than-life persona in
Venezuela, helped them throw off the shackles of capitalism and
foreign interference, and that he fell ill because he devoted
all his energy to a peaceful "revolution."
"He was like a father to us. He taught us how to love our
country, our culture and our sovereignty," said Madeleine
Gutierrez, 29, an architect. Tears streamed down her cheeks as
she hugged friends in a plaza named for Chavez's hero Simon
Bolivar, who liberated much of Latin America from Spanish
"Chavez lives! The fight goes on!" people chanted. Clad in
red, the color of the Socialist Party, they thronged the balmy
streets of Caracas, creating rivers of crimson in homage to the
departed president. Bands of motorcyclists honked their horns in
Critics say Chavez squandered the wealth from an oil price
bonanza by spending too much on inefficient social welfare
programs, lost control of inflation, allowed violent crime to
surge and insulted U.S. and European leaders for sport.
But with his African and indigenous heritage, Chavez was the
face of the masses in the South American country who say their
needs were ignored for decades by lighter-skinned rulers until
"He gave his life for us. You could call him a martyr," said
Jose Rondon, 48, wearing a beret like one used by Chavez, at the
hospital where the president died.
Rondon works for a union group affiliated with the Chavez
government and, like many of the people on the streets
interviewed by Reuters, has ties to his party.
Still, Wednesday's outpouring looked far more spontaneous
than normal pro-government events, where party cadres marshal
turnout. It was on a scale rarely seen anywhere for an elected
Many supporters channeled their grief into raucous shouts of
support and militant vows to continue his policies. Some,
though, stood silently or cried.
"Everyone has benefited under Chavez. He included everybody.
Like him or not, all have benefited," said Marixa Carrion, who
works as a secretary at the foreign ministry.
Chavez's personality cult at times bore religious overtones.
People were already comparing him on Wednesday to former
Argentine leader Eva Peron, who is cherished in her country half
a century after her death.
Hundreds of posters of a smiling Chavez catching raindrops
in his hand hang from lampposts across Caracas. The posters are
emblazoned with a slogan that alludes to him as a creator: "Life
rains down from your hands. We love you."
In contrast with the euphoria on the street, some of
Chavez's detractors were quietly celebrating his demise. Though
opposition supporters were largely staying indoors, some posted
messages on Twitter toasting the end of the Chavez era.
Many Venezuelans saw Chavez's nationalistic streak as an
example they must strive to live up to.
"I love Chavez and will continue loving him," said Hugo
Bolivar, 60, who works as a security guard for the city of
Caracas. "I have Bolivar's last name and the president's first
name. He cared a lot about his country - just like me."
Marchers strained to see or even touch Chavez's coffin as it
wound its way through crowded streets. Many people carried
banners reading "I am Chavez" and waved red, yellow and blue
At various points, recordings of Chavez singing songs or
making impassioned speeches blared through loudspeakers,
reducing many to tears.
Chavez's imprint may endure for years. His preferred
successor, acting President Nicolas Maduro, is favored to win an
election that is expected to be called in the next 30 days.
Fans of Chavez hope that Maduro, who for now lacks the
charisma and zeal of his former boss, could grow into his new
Maduro was surrounded by a sea of people on Wednesday as he
walked with Chavez's coffin toward a monumental esplanade among
probably one of the largest crowds of his political life.
"Charisma is like a seed that you must plant to harvest
later. Chavez wasn't all that charismatic when he started out.
Maduro could learn by doing," said Manuel Montanez, 48.
(Reporting by Terry Wade; Editing by Kieran Murray and Eric