Chavez funeral: lavish nod to a populist touch and global reach

More than 55 world leaders attended the Chávez funeral, while thousands of ordinary Venezuelans queued to view his body, which is lying in state. 

Rodrigo Abd/AP
Supporters of Venezuela's late President Hugo Chavez hold a poster reading in Spanish 'Move forward commander!' outside the military academy where the late president's funeral ceremony took, in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday.

A long list of foreign dignitaries paid an emotional farewell to Hugo Chávez today in a state funeral that displayed the president’s world reach as well as his following among ordinary Venezuelans.

More than 55 leaders from around the world took turns standing before the flag-draped coffin. Outside, thousands of Venezuelans gathered, waiting in line for hours to enter the white military academy where Chávez's body will lie in state for the next week. 

“It was emblematic” of the way Chávez led, says Eloy Torres Román, formerly a top diplomat in Chávez's socialist party and currently a professor at Santa María University in Caracas. “It was over the top … but you saw how many people he reached. Even Sean Penn was there.”

Before the somber ceremony began, politics threatened to steal the spotlight, a reminder that  Venezuela’s future was cast into uncertainty when its charismatic but controversial president died.

This morning, the Venezuelan high court ruled that Vice President Nicolas Maduro can be sworn in this evening as interim president and run for president in the upcoming election. That ruling came despite a Constitution that says the National Assembly speaker should take the role of interim president.

Leading opposition figure Henrique Capriles, who is likely to run against Mr. Maduro, called the ruling “fraud” on his Twitter account. The election should be held within 30 days, according to the Constitution, although no date has been set.

Anti-imperialist firebrand

Chávez, who died Tuesday at the age of 58, cultivated his image throughout Latin America and around the world by serving as an anti-imperialist – often anti-US – firebrand while doling out subsidized petroleum.

His rhetoric and oil aid won him friends in countries often at odds with the United States. Presidents Raul Castro of Cuba, Rafael Correa of Ecuador, Evo Morales of Bolivia, and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua attended the funeral.

The Obama administration also sent a delegation, former Congressman William Delahunt of Massachusetts and Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (D-NY). The decision drew criticism from Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R) of Florida – who called it “weak and irresponsible” in a statement -- proving that even in death, Chávez continues to push buttons in the US.

In the ceremony, which was broadcast by state television, and on the streets, the oft-heard cry was that Chávez’s socialist-inspired revolution would live on.

“It’s not about one man. It’s a movement and it will continue,” says Yubelky Gonzalez, a housewife who joined the line in front of the military academy at 3 a.m. 

Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told state TV after the service, “Chávez is not a person ... it’s a path to save humanity.”

The Chavismo narrative

Chávez's approach, known as Chavismo, has often drawn comparisons to other political ideologies such as Argentina’s Peronism, inspired by former President Juan Domingo Perón, who died in 1974.

“For a number of years I’ve been struck by Chavismo as being the closest thing to Peronism that Latin America has seen in decades,” says Eric Hershberg, director of the Center of Latin American Studies at American University in Washington, D.C.

Chávez admired Peron’s example. He described himself as a “true Peronist” during a 2008 visit to Argentina, linking himself to a political movement that stresses rejection of foreign powers in favor of economic and political independence. It was based originally on Peron's Justicialist Party, but political scientists say it is has taken on many faces in the decades since it began. 

Today’s funeral drew comparisons to that of Peron’s late wife Eva Peron, who also died of cancer and was embalmed after her body lay in state for several days. Venezuelan officials plan the same for Chávez's body.

But now that Chávez has died, will Chavismo live on like Peronismo has?

Francisco Toro, co-author of “Blogging the Revolution,” says the question deserves a more nuanced answer.

The cult of personality that Chávez fostered through his charismatic leadership will almost certainly go away, Toro writes in his blog. But Chavismo’s ability to manipulate the truth will live on.

“It’s Chavismo’s capacity to generate ‘truths’ divorced from any evidence and based exclusively on the regime’s narrative needs that’s likely to survive Chávez’s passing,” Toro writes. “It is the aggressive, no-holds-barred perversion of the democratic public sphere that will be around for decades after Chávez has gone.”

Latin America, says Mr. Torres, is the land of “magical realism, where realities can be suspended.”

Since it became apparent that Chávez was gravely ill, socialist party leaders began to focus less on him and more on the idea, says Mr. Hershberg.

“It’s not about the man, it’s about the imaginary,” he says. “Ever since October, it has been much more about the imaging and the iconography. There has been a shift from … icon to now he’s a kind of patron saint.”

In his emotional speech at the funeral today, Maduro said Chávez prevailed against a campaign of “lies. … Never has there been a leader in the history of our country more viciously attacked than President Chávez.”

The audience rose to its feet and applauded as Maduro concluded his speech. “Chávez lives, the fight continues!” they shouted.  

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