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Venezuelans Say Goodbye to Hugo Chavez

March 6, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
In Caracas, Venezuela, an emotional crowd watched the procession of the body of Hugo Chavez to the capital's military academy, where the late president will lie in state. Margaret Warner takes a look at Chavez's work and legacy, as well as unanswered questions about succession.
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GWEN IFILL: Now to Venezuela, where much of the country mourned the death of President Hugo Chavez today.

Margaret Warner reports.

MARGARET WARNER:  Thousands of mourners lined the streets of Caracas today, as a military honor guard moved President Hugo Chavez’s body from the hospital where he died to the capital’s military academy. There, he will lie in state.

Huge crowds, led by Vice President Nicolas Maduro, joined in the emotional procession. Some shouted anti-American slogans. Many vowed to uphold Chavez’s socialist ideals.

JOSE ROJAS, Chavez Supporter: Venezuelans of heart and conviction, we believe in the legacy of President Chavez, and this sustains us to fight for our country, our families, our children.

GRACIELA CEDENO, Chavez Supporter: Chavez lives. Chavez lives because I am Chavez and because most of us are Chavez. Long live Chavez.

MARGARET WARNER:  Chavez was one of six sons born to impoverished parents in 1954 in a cattle-ranching region in western Venezuela. He was raised by his grandmother, joined the army at just 16, and eventually became a paratrooper, with the rank of lieutenant colonel.

In 1992, he led a coup attempt against then-President Carlos Andres Perez and a government riddled with corruption and social divisions. The coup failed, but the move catapulted Chavez to national prominence. He was jailed, but pardoned two years later, and, in 1998, he ran for president and won, pledging to usher in social and economic equality in a new constitution.

PRESIDENT HUGO CHAVEZ, Venezuela: I swear in front of my people on this moribund constitution that I will comply and boost the democratic transformations necessary, so that the new republic will have a Magna Carta adequate to the new times. I swear it.

MARGARET WARNER:  Venezuela is the world’s second largest oil- producer, and Chavez nationalized the oil industry and used the revenue to build a welfare state. He subsidized food and built housing and medical clinics often staffed by Cuban doctors.

The U.S. is the world’s top consumer of Venezuelan oil, but Washington bristled at Chavez’s embrace of Cuba’s Fidel Castro and his advocacy of leftist revolution in Latin America.

In 2002, Chavez was briefly deposed in a failed coup, and accused the U.S. of playing a role. And as the years went by, he delighted in flamboyant verbal assaults on American leaders. He took the podium at the U.N. General Assembly in 2006 with choice words about then-President George W. Bush.

HUGO CHAVEZ: Yesterday, the devil was here, right here.

It smells of sulfur, this podium where from where I’m speaking. Yesterday, ladies and gentlemen, from this same place, the president of the United States, who I call the devil, came here speaking as the owner of the world.

MARGARET WARNER:  Chavez was less hostile toward President Obama, even saying they would vote for each other in their respective reelection bids last fall.

HUGO CHAVEZ: If I were American, I would vote for Obama. And I think if Obama was from here, or if he was some neighborhood in Caracas, he would vote for Chavez. I am sure of it.

MARGARET WARNER:  In a statement last night, Mr. Obama signaled hopes for a more constructive, less volatile relationship with Venezuela, saying: “As Venezuela begins a new chapter in its history, the United States remains committed to policies that promote democratic principles, the rule of law, and respect for human rights.”

Chavez’s long and ultimately losing battle with cancer is thought to begun in 2011. He made multiple trips to Cuba for treatment. But last July, he proclaimed himself cancer-free, and won another six-year term in the October election.

In November came word that the cancer had returned, and Chavez went back to Havana for more treatment. Before leaving, he named Vice President Nicolas Maduro his handpicked successor.

HUGO CHAVEZ: If something were to occur that would render me unfit in some way, in that situation, Nicolas Maduro shouldn’t just complete, as the constitution requires, the term, but my firm opinion, you elect Nicolas Maduro as the president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

MARGARET WARNER:  His illness kept Chavez from returning to Venezuela for his Jan. 10th inauguration. But over the objections of opposition leaders, the Venezuelan Supreme Court declared the inauguration could be postponed. Chavez made his final homecoming in February, but wasn’t seen in public.

He remained in a military hospital until his death yesterday at 58. Now Venezuela must hold a new presidential election in the weeks ahead. It would likely pit Vice President Maduro …

VICE PRESIDENT NICOLAS MADURO, Venezuela: May our people know that the democratic, revolutionary, anti-imperialist and socialist legacy of our commandant is carried on with firmness, with absolute loyalty.

MARGARET WARNER: … against the man Chavez defeated last fall, former Governor Henrique Capriles.

HENRIQUE CAPRILES RADONSKI, Former Venezuelan Presidential Candidate: And to the government, who are burdened with the principal responsibility of guaranteeing coexistence in freedom and in peace, we hope, like all Venezuelans do, that they act in strict accordance with their constitutional duties.

MARGARET WARNER:  There is also some question about who runs Venezuela in the interim, the vice president or the speaker of the National Assembly.

GWEN IFILL: Online, we have more on Venezuela’s vice president, Nicolas Maduro, and his loyalty to Hugo Chavez.