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.
Rondon works for a union group affiliated with the Chavez government and, like many of the people on the streets interviewed by Reuters, has ties to his party.
Still, Wednesday’s outpouring looked far more spontaneous than normal pro-government events, where party cadres marshal turnout. It was on a scale rarely seen anywhere for an elected official.
Many supporters channeled their grief into raucous shouts of support and militant vows to continue his policies. Some, though, stood silently or cried.
“Everyone has benefited under Chavez. He included everybody. Like him or not, all have benefited,” said Marixa Carrion, who works as a secretary at the foreign ministry.
Chavez’s personality cult at times bore religious overtones. People were already comparing him on Wednesday to former Argentine leader Eva Peron, who is cherished in her country half a century after her death.
Hundreds of posters of a smiling Chavez catching raindrops in his hand hang from lampposts across Caracas. The posters are emblazoned with a slogan that alludes to him as a creator: “Life rains down from your hands. We love you.”
In contrast with the euphoria on the street, some of Chavez’s detractors were quietly celebrating his demise. Though opposition supporters were largely staying indoors, some posted messages on Twitter toasting the end of the Chavez era.
Many Venezuelans saw Chavez’s nationalistic streak as an example they must strive to live up to.
“I love Chavez and will continue loving him,” said Hugo Bolivar, 60, who works as a security guard for the city of Caracas. “I have Bolivar’s last name and the president’s first name. He cared a lot about his country - just like me.”
Marchers strained to see or even touch Chavez’s coffin as it wound its way through crowded streets. Many people carried banners reading “I am Chavez” and waved red, yellow and blue Venezuelan flags.
At various points, recordings of Chavez singing songs or making impassioned speeches blared through loudspeakers, reducing many to tears.
Chavez’s imprint may endure for years. His preferred successor, acting President Nicolas Maduro, is favored to win an election that is expected to be called in the next 30 days.
Fans of Chavez hope that Maduro, who for now lacks the charisma and zeal of his former boss, could grow into his new role.
Maduro was surrounded by a sea of people on Wednesday as he walked with Chavez’s coffin toward a monumental esplanade among probably one of the largest crowds of his political life.
“Charisma is like a seed that you must plant to harvest later. Chavez wasn’t all that charismatic when he started out. Maduro could learn by doing,” said Manuel Montanez, 48.
Reporting by Terry Wade; Editing by Kieran Murray and Eric Beech