CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez will be embalmed and put on display “for eternity” at a military museum after a state funeral and an extended period of lying in state, acting President Nicolas Maduro said on Thursday.
Huge crowds are still waiting to pay their respects to Chavez after his death this week, and Maduro said the move - reminiscent of the treatment of Communist leaders Lenin, Stalin and Mao after their deaths - would help keep the late president’s self-declared socialist revolution alive.
“It has been decided that the body of the comandante will be embalmed so that it remains eternally on view for the people at the museum,” Maduro told state TV.
Chavez, a former paratrooper, died on Tuesday aged 58 after a two-year battle with cancer. He was president for 14 years and is now lying in state at a military academy where the government says more than 2 million supporters have viewed it since Wednesday.
Maduro said Chavez’s official funeral would go ahead on Friday, attended by about 30 leaders from around the world and that his body would then lie in state for a further seven days.
Huge lines snaked around the academy on Thursday as tens of thousands of Venezuelans shuffled forward to salute, raise clenched fists or make the sign of the cross over Chavez’s casket.
From soldiers in fatigues to officers in ceremonial dress, to residents of the slums where Chavez was most loved, those in line vowed to defend his legacy and back Maduro, his preferred heir, in a new election.
“I arrived in the early hours to see Chavez. He is my personal idol,” said Henry Acosta, 56.
A sobbing Berta Colmenares, 77, said “Chavistas” must throw their weight behind Maduro to carry on the revolution.
“I will vote for Maduro, who else? He is the one who Chavez chose and we have to follow his wish.”
Chavez was dressed in an army uniform and a signature red beret like the one he wore in a 1992 speech to the nation that launched his political career after he led a failed coup.
People were given just a few seconds to glance at his body inside the relatively simple wooden coffin, which has a glass top and was draped in flowers and a Venezuelan flag.
One government source told Reuters that Chavez slipped into a coma on Monday and died the next day of respiratory failure after a rapid deterioration from the weekend, when he had held a five-hour meeting with ministers at his bedside.
The cancer had spread to his lungs, according to the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
There is uncertainty over exactly when a presidential vote will be held in the South American OPEC country, which has the world’s largest oil reserves and 29 million residents.
The constitution stipulates a poll must be called within 30 days, but politicians say election authorities may not be ready in time and there is talk of a possible delay. Chavez ruled for 14 years and won four presidential elections.
Maduro, 50, a former union leader who ended his education at high school before plunging into politics, looks certain to face opposition leader Henrique Capriles, 40, the centrist governor of Miranda state who lost to Chavez in last year’s election.
Members of the opposition have kept a low profile and offered condolences during the enormous show of support for Chavez, one of Latin America’s most popular leaders.
But some expressed relief at the demise of a man they saw as a dictator who trampled on opponents and ruined their economy.
“I wanted his mandate to end. Power made him lose perspective,” said Israel Nogales, 43, a university administrator walking in a Caracas park.
“He polarized the country and families like mine. ... He is going to be treated like a martyr and that is wrong.”
On Wednesday, opposition sources told Reuters they have again agreed to back Capriles, whose 44-percent vote share in 2012 was the best performance by any candidate against Chavez.
One recent opinion poll gave Maduro a strong lead, and both international markets and foreign diplomats are factoring in a probable win for him and a continuation of “Chavista” policies, at least in the short term.
The tall and hefty Maduro, who lacks Chavez’s man-of-the-people charisma, served as his foreign minister for six years before being named vice president in late 2012.
He has pledged to adhere to Chavez’s brand of ferociously nationalist politics and controversial economic policies that included regular seizures of private businesses as well as wildly popular social welfare programs.
Some analysts believe Maduro might eventually try to ease tensions with Western investors and the United States. But just hours before Chavez’s death, Maduro was accusing “imperialist” enemies of infecting the president with cancer and he expelled two American diplomats for alleged conspiracies.
Maduro is expected to continue bashing Washington, at least until the election. He may have to step down from his role as caretaker president to launch his candidacy and one official source told Reuters that Chavez’s son-in-law, Science Minister Jorge Arreaza, might step into that role.
Capriles, an athletic career politician and lawyer from a wealthy family, wants Venezuela to follow Brazil’s softer center-left model.
Venezuela’s heavily traded global bonds, which gained before Chavez’s death, were down for a second straight day on Thursday as investors realized his economic model of government control could persist for years. Yields for the 2027 bond spiked to nearly 9.5 percent as prices continued to fall.
State media have been airing old Chavez speeches and songs over and over in lengthy tributes.
Foreign Minister Elias Jaua urged private Venezuelan media outlets to let “Chavistas” mourn and refrain from provoking opponents to hold rallies against the government.
Authorities blame TV channels aligned with the opposition for helping incite a 2002 coup that briefly toppled Chavez.
At the wake, Venezuelans strained for a glimpse of Chavez, many welling up in tears as they reached his casket.
“I told him ‘don’t worry, Nicolas Maduro will be the new president as you asked’,” said nurse Maria Fernandez, 51, after filing past the coffin.
Additional reporting by Simon Gardner and Marianna Parraga in Caracas, Rosa Tania Valdes in Havana, Helen Popper in Buenos Aires, Daniel Bases in New York; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Kieran Murray and David Brunnstrom