Venezuela's Chavez exalted as "father" and "martyr" by followers

Wed Mar 6, 2013 4:12pm EST
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By Terry Wade

CARACAS (Reuters) - Deceased Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez was hailed by weeping supporters on Wednesday as a spiritual father figure who sacrificed his life for his country.

The 58-year-old socialist president succumbed to cancer on Tuesday after 14 years in power that polarized a country with vast oil reserves by sidelining traditional elites in favor of millions mired in poverty.

Supporters say Chavez, a larger-than-life persona in Venezuela, helped them throw off the shackles of capitalism and foreign interference, and that he fell ill because he devoted all his energy to a peaceful "revolution."

"He was like a father to us. He taught us how to love our country, our culture and our sovereignty," said Madeleine Gutierrez, 29, an architect. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she hugged friends in a plaza named for Chavez's hero Simon Bolivar, who liberated much of Latin America from Spanish colonial rule.

"Chavez lives! The fight goes on!" people chanted. Clad in red, the color of the Socialist Party, they thronged the balmy streets of Caracas, creating rivers of crimson in homage to the departed president. Bands of motorcyclists honked their horns in impromptu motorcades.

Critics say Chavez squandered the wealth from an oil price bonanza by spending too much on inefficient social welfare programs, lost control of inflation, allowed violent crime to surge and insulted U.S. and European leaders for sport.

But with his African and indigenous heritage, Chavez was the face of the masses in the South American country who say their needs were ignored for decades by lighter-skinned rulers until he arrived.

"He gave his life for us. You could call him a martyr," said Jose Rondon, 48, wearing a beret like one used by Chavez, at the hospital where the president died.   Continued...

Supporters of Venezuela's late President Hugo Chavez unfurl a large national flag as they gather to see his coffin driven through the streets of Caracas, March 6, 2013. REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez