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Venezuela Celebrates Lasting Legacy of Divisive President Chavez

March 8, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: Next to Venezuela.

Crowds spread out over a mile today in Caracas, as the country said goodbye to President Hugo Chavez.

Matt Frei of Independent Television News reports.

MATT FREI, Independent Television News: This feels less like a funeral and more like a celebration of immortality. And every time the camera passes, the exhausted faithful, who have been waiting on their feet for 24 hours, play their part, all this despite the soaring heat.

Chavez may be dead, but they all behave as if he’s still alive, highlights of a life cut short at only 58 years are played on giant screens on a loop. Given perhaps his posthumous appeal, the government has taken the decision not to bury him, but to embalm Chavez and keep him lying in state forever.

Immortality is the rarest of compliments, and for this crowd, Chavez has joined the top three.

What they are saying is that the three most important people in their lives, all dead, are Jesus Christ, Simon Bolivar, and now Hugo Chavez.

For the country and the government, this was an opportunity to do many things, not just pay respects to the man who dominated Venezuela for the last 40 years — first up, the symbolic passing the torch, or, in this case, the sword of power. The sword is in fact a replica of the one that had once belonged to Simon Bolivar, the liberator of Latin American from colonial rule and Chavez’s main inspiration.

Today, it was held aloft by the man who inherited Chavez’s mantle, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, former bus driver and union boss, who will be sworn in as interim president later today and hopes to get re-anointed in fresh elections. The sword was his personal gift to his dead patron.

Then this was an opportunity for Venezuela to show off its friends to the world, after the Latin American leaders pried a place in their very own guard of honor, President Ahmadinejad of Iran and President Lukashenko of Belarus. Raul Castro, brother of Fidel, also had a front-row seat.

To Washington, this may look like a class reunion of the axis of evil, but to the guests here, this is the club of countries that pride themselves on defying America. Many of those in the audience lacked most of the things that Chavez possessed, charisma, a popular mandate, plenty of oil, and a good friend from Hollywood. The actor Sean Penn was also in attendance.

Hugo Chavez reveled being a divisive figure, and he will continue to divide opinions at home and abroad, even from the grave.