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Final march held in honor of Chavez

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

The body of late president Hugo Chavez made its way through the Venezuelan capital Friday in a multitudinous farewell to the "comandante" a month before elections to pick his successor.

His loved ones joined high-ranking government and army officials at a mass in his memory, saying goodbye before sending the remains of the leftist leader on its final journey through the city.

"He became an exemplary president, the only one who remembered the poor," said Diosdado Cabello, president of the National Assembly, at the memorial at the Caracas military academy where Chavez's casket has been on display for the past nine days.

"Those who scoff and say we no longer have Chavez, you are wrong," he added. "We must comply with the comandante's orders: unity, struggle, battle, victory."

Chavez succumbed to cancer last week after 14 years in power at age 58, plunging a deeply polarized Venezuela into mourning and uncertainty over its future.

His daughter Maria Gabriela, donning dark glasses, thanked her father amid applause for "giving us the homeland back" and promised to defend his legacy, as Chavez's mother wept incessantly alongside other close family members.

Also in attendance was Bolivian President Evo Morales, a close Chavez ally. The proceedings were led by acting President Nicholas Maduro.

Chavez's casket was then loaded into a black hearse for the 12 kilometer (7.5 mile) procession to the army barracks-turned-museum that the former paratrooper had used as his headquarters during a failed 1992 coup attempt.

Located on a hilltop, his "Mountain Barracks" resting place overlooks a sprawling public housing complex in the poor western end of the capital that was a fervent Chavez stronghold.

Huge crowds of supporters -- many sporting red shirts bearing Chavez's likeness -- watched as the hearse, flanked by riders on horseback, made its way slowly down the Paseo de los Proceres, a boulevard honoring the oil-rich country's founders.

"I came because he is our president," 51-year-old Judith Santana told AFP. "The best tribute we can pay tribute is to keep fighting for our revolution and to be happy, not sad."

The march resembled last week's seven-hour procession during which Chavez's coffin was transferred to the academy from the military hospital where he died.

What happens to his body in the longer term is still an open question, with Maduro saying this week it may be too late to embalm him "like Lenin" and put him on permanent public view, as he had earlier suggested.

Also up in the air is a proposal to inter his remains in the National Pantheon next to those of South American independence leader Simon Bolivar, Chavez's personal hero and the inspiration of his leftist movement.

On Tuesday, the ruling party postponed debate in parliament on a constitutional amendment that would make this possible without waiting 25 years.

Huge lines of mourners had filed past Chavez's casket at the military academy chapel in the days before the procession to pay tribute to the "comandante," who was laid out in an olive green uniform and trademark red beret.

Up until the last minute, his followers streamed in to say their goodbyes, some even reciting poems or verses.

"He did so much for us," Aura Luque, a retired secretary, told AFP.

Venezuelans will vote for a new president on April 14.

In the running are Maduro, whom Chavez picked as his successor in his last public appearance before going to Cuba for cancer surgery in December, and opposition leader Henrique Capriles, beaten by Chavez in October elections.

jm-mis/vlk/jm

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130315/final-march-held-honor-chavez-0