'I love you Chavez!': Legions weep for late leader

The throng waited for Hugo Chavez under a searing tropical sun, a sea of red shirts waving Venezuelan flags, clutching pictures of their leftist hero, chanting "Chavez lives! The struggle goes on!"

At last, there it was, the hearse carrying the socialist leader's wooden casket, crawling up the road under one of the hillside slums that was a bastion of his support.

The chants rose to a crescendo, women threw flowers at the flag-draped coffin and then the tears came. Uncontrollable tears. Young women, young men, grandmothers, grandfathers, weeping as the coffin passed mere meters away.

"I love you Chavez! You're like a father," Carlos Betancourt, 24, shouted through sobs, as if hoping his voice could penetrate the casket while he stood on his motorcycle seat, capturing the whole episode with his camera phone.

This was the scene all along an endless avenue of Caracas on Wednesday, when hundreds of thousands of loyalists bade farewell to a leader whose oil-funded revolution enchanted the poor and angered the wealthy during his 14-year rule.

Some watched from rooftops under garden umbrellas, others climbed on lamp-posts to get a better view, while legions lined the road, close enough to throw roses on top of the coffin. Others crowded bridges for a bird's eye view.

Chavez, 58, built a near-mystical bond with his followers, mesmerizing them with bombastic speeches against capitalism, and theatrics like dancing and singing in the rain during his last campaign rally before re-election in October.

In December, he spoke to them for the last time to say he was going to Cuba for urgent cancer surgery. Now, Chavez is in a casket, silenced forever, though many followers said his revolution would live on, because "Chavez lives."

After a seven-hour, eight-kilometer (five-mile) trek through the city, his body placed in a military academy, where he lay in state in an open casket for all Venezuelans to see him one last time until his funeral Friday.

"After Jesus Christ, there's Hugo Chavez," said Maria Alexandra, a 46-year-old mother of six.

"Before him, the government didn't take care about us," said Alexandra, adding that she lived in poverty until Chavez came around. "Now children have everything."

Others compared him to South American 19th century independence hero Simon Bolivar, whose portrait was held alongside pictures of Chavez amid chants of "Chavez in the pantheon, next to Simon!"

And then there was the man Chavez hand-picked to succeed him, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, the broad-shouldered former bus driver and union activist, walking somberly in front of the hearse, wearing a jacket in the colors of the Venezuelan flag, at one point stopping and staring at the sky.

The crowd chanted: "With Chavez and Maduro, the people are safe!"

While Chavistas mourned on Wednesday, they will soon have to start thinking about elections, which must take place within 30 days under the constitution. Many said they would fulfill Chavez's last wishes and vote for Maduro.

Jose Viloria, a 64-year-old agricultural trader, said it was a day of sadness because it was the death of a "revolutionary leader" but that his "revolution of the 21st century is stronger than ever."

"We will carry him in our hearts forever. We're going forward until death with him," Viloria said, wearing a red cap with the words "Chavez, my friend, the people are with you."

Roberto Galindez, 32, a former professional basketball player turned computer engineer, said the people would back Maduro, but that they were really voting for a socialist system.

"The leader is gone, but the ideas will never disappear," Galindez said. "Maduro has the same Chavista doctrine. He will continue with the same ideals."

Zaire Cordoba, a 28-year-old administrative assistant, said she will support Maduro but argued that Chavez's heir has yet to convince some of his ideology.

"He hasn't convinced them yet, but if they give him the opportunity, he will," she said under a building with a huge billboard of opposition leader Henrique Capriles, Maduro's likely opponent.

While Chavistas paid respects to their leader, opposition supporters in well-heeled neighborhoods remembered a different man.

"Hate and division was the only thing that he spread," said 28-year-old computer programmer Jose Mendoza in an eastern Caracas cafe.

"He did a lot of social things, but he could have done much more. He also did a lot of harm because there are no institutions, there is no justice. He mistreated everyone who disagreed with his government."