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Latin America leaders, US foes gather for Chavez funeral

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Latin American leaders and US foes gathered in Caracas to join throngs of mourners at a state funeral for Venezuela's Hugo Chavez on Friday, as the nation eyes life without him with the formal swearing-in of his political heir.

Venezuela has given a lavish farewell to the leftist firebrand, with hundreds of thousands of people filing past his open casket nonstop since Wednesday to say goodbye to the man who was worshipped by the oil-rich nation's poor.

The state funeral was set to begin at 11:00 am (1530 GMT) at a military academy. In the evening Nicolas Maduro, who was Chavez's vice president, will be named acting president and elections are expected to be called within 30 days.

Most Latin American leaders are attending the funeral, as well as bugbears of the West long courted by the anti-US Chavez, including Cuba's Raul Castro, Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Belarussian strongman Alexander Lukashenko.

The former paratrooper, who died Tuesday at age 58 after a long battle with cancer, will lie in state an extra seven days to allow everybody to see him.

He will then be embalmed "like Ho Chi Minh, Lenin and Mao" and kept in a glass casket "for eternity," Maduro said Thursday.

Maduro said the body will be taken to the "Mountain Barracks" in the January 23 slum that was a bastion of Chavez support, a facility that is now being converted into a Museum of the Revolution.

It was there that Chavez had spearheaded what proved to be a failed coup against president Carlos Andres Perez on February 4, 1992. His arrest turned him into a hero, leading to his first of many election victories in 1998.

But Maduro suggested that Chavez may one day be moved elsewhere, a nod to popular pressure for him to be taken to the national pantheon to lie alongside Latin American independence hero Simon Bolivar.

The government said more than two million people had come since Wednesday to get a glimpse of their hero, whose petrodollar-fueled socialism earned him friends and foes at home and abroad. Many stood in line through the night.

Chavez lay in a half-open, glass-covered casket in the academy's hall, wearing olive green military fatigues, a black tie and the iconic red beret that became a symbol of his 14-year socialist rule.

People blew him kisses, made the sign of the cross or gave military salutes as they walked by, with just seconds to see him. A four-man honor guard and four tall candelabras flanked the coffin, with a golden sword at the foot of it.

"It doesn't matter how many hours we wait. We will be here until we see him," said Luis Herrera, 49, a driver wearing a red beret who was in line with countless others in the middle of the night.

A Philippine mortician famous for installing deceased dictator Ferdinand Marcos in a glass display case offered his services early Friday, stressing that authorities must act quickly if they want to preserve the body properly.

"I have not been contacted for it but I am always expecting a call. I will process anyone, anywhere," Frank Malabed, 62, told AFP in Manila.

Chavez's death was a blow to the alliance of left-wing Latin American powers he led, and has plunged his OPEC member nation into uncertainty.

Maduro, 50, has now taken on the leadership of Chavismo, a leftist movement that poured the nation's oil riches into social programs.

After being sworn in as acting president, he will likely face off in elections against opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chavez in the October presidential polls.

In a country divided by Chavez's populist style, opinions of his legacy vary, with opposition supporters in better-off neighborhoods angry at the runaway murder rate, high inflation and expropriations.

"Things have gotten worse. Venezuela used to be safer, we could afford to buy things," said Inacio Da Costa, a 20-year-old university law student eating ice cream in a square in the opposition's bastion in the east of the city.

"There's a lack of security, and our money is worth nothing."

Chavez was just as polarizing on the international stage.

Under Chavez, Venezuela's oil wealth underwrote the Castro brothers' communist rule in Cuba, and he repeatedly courted confrontation with Washington by cozying up to anti-Western governments in Russia, Syria and Iran.

Ahmadinejad again expressed his condolences as he arrived in Venezuela early Friday, calling Chavez "a symbol for all those who seek justice, love and peace in the world."

Chavez's closest ally, Cuban President Raul Castro, had earlier said his friend had died "undefeated, invincible, victorious" after "entering through the great door of history."

bur-lth/jm

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130308/latin-america-leaders-us-foes-gather-chavez-funeral