Caracas was experiencing business as usual yesterday after the news that Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez had died following his fourth cancer surgery in two years.
But while much of the city was quietly reflecting, in Caracas, business as usual also includes whooping packs of red-shirted chavistas. Assembled throughout the city to grieve, cry and shout out socialist chants, a fresh arrival to Caracas would have been hard pressed to find many indications of the country- rocking news that had broken just 12 hours before.
One group mourning the loss of Mr Chávez in the city’s central Plaza Bolívar paraded banners and applauded the state television network VTV as it broadcast its messages of condolence direct to a flat-screen television beneath a red pop-up gazebo. “It’s a horrible day, all of Venezuela is suffering,” said Daisy Quintero through floods of tears. “I came here last night and again early this morning to be with my people.”
Mr Chávez’s coffin left the military hospital in the San Martín district of Caracas where he died on Monday, and was paraded through the streets to a military academy. Supporters dressed in red followed the coffin, waving banners of his smiling face – beaming from posters used in his October re-election campaign.
The funeral tomorrow of the former paratrooper promises to draw leaders from across the globe to the oil-rich nation, which has the world’s largest reserves. Already, the presidents of Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia have arrived to mourn a man whose passing leaves an enormous void in the region’s anti-American Left. The question now for Venezuela is the upcoming elections. The constitution states that these will be called within 30 days of the president’s death. Acting president Nicholas Maduro, who Mr Chávez anointed his successor in the event of his death two days before he departed for his final cancer surgery in Cuba, is expected to stand.
“Maduro isn’t the perfection we’re looking for. He doesn’t draw the crowds like Chávez did, he doesn’t speak like Chávez did, but he’s no puppet,”said Eluterio Rodríguez. “The man is a worker, he was a bus driver, he’s one of us and now he’s going to be president of the republic.”
The tall, moustachioed Mr Maduro, who was less popular around the country in polls than opposition leader Henrique Capriles last October, saw his approval rating soar in December, when Mr Chávez anointed him as his preferred successor.
“I would prefer even Chávez to Maduro,”said Maria Lopez, a staunch opposition supporter. “He’s radical in a way that the late president wasn’t. With Chávez, there was a degree of stability – I can’t see this in Maduro”.
Even from beyond the grave, Mr Chávez’s opinion still holds weight. “It’s enough for us that Chávez chose him,” said José Sardinia. “Maduro is not the best, but he’s our man because Chávez said so.”
While the presidential candidate is almost certain to be Mr Maduro, the constitution states that it is the president of the National Congress – another political powerhouse in Diosdado Cabello – who should take over in the event of a leader’s incapacity to govern.
He has the support of the Venezuelan military, a faction of which came out to guarantee the “peace and security of the nation” immediately after the announcement of Mr Chávez’s death, pledging allegiance to the government and mentioning Mr Cabello by name.
Unity within Mr Chávez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela should not pose a problem, but having the armed forces in favour of one side in particular is not ideal in a country with a history of military coups.
As for the future of Venezuelan socialism, Chavistas in the centre of the city were certain of one thing. “What we need, now more than ever, is unity,” said Frango Marcelo. “Maduro has to shake up the political scene here. We will follow.”
Others who weren’t as fervently supportive of the current government were more sceptical. “It’s the end of socialism here,” said David Lopez, a businessman. “Without Chávez, there is no socialism.”
As for the opposition, it has remained tight-lipped about its second chance in six months to take the reins of the republic. The opposition presidential candidate is once again expected to be the 40-year-old Mr Capriles, the centre-left governor of Miranda state, who lost by to Mr Chávez in October by a narrow margin in terms of Venezuela’s recent political history.
Mr Chávez led Venezuela for 14 years. His folksy charisma, anti-US diatribes and oil- financed projects to improve life for residents of long-neglected slums created a powerful bond with many poor Venezuelans. That intense emotional connection underpinned his rule, but critics saw his autocratic style, gleeful nationalisations and often harsh treatment of rivals as hallmarks of a dictator whose misguided policies squandered a historic bonanza of oil revenues.