CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelans stripped of their larger-than-life leader awoke to an uncertain future on Wednesday, with jittery throngs flocking to supermarkets and gas stations to stock up, and anti-American vitriol infusing official statements and the chants of the street.
Hugo Chavez’s body was being brought from the hospital where he died to a military academy where it will remain until the late president’s funeral Friday, an event that promises to draw leaders from all over Latin America and the world. Already, the presidents of Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia have arrived for the ceremony.
Even in death, Chavez’s orders were being heeded. The man he anointed to succeed him, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, will continue to run Venezuela as interim president and be the governing socialists’ candidate in an election to be called within 30 days.
In a late night tweet, Venezuelan state-television said Defense Minister Adm. Diego Molero had pledged military support for Maduro’s candidacy against likely opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, despite a constitutional mandate that the armed forces play a non-political role.
The streets of Caracas were free of the usual weekday morning traffic as public employees, schoolchildren and many others stayed home on the first day of a week of national mourning. The only lines were at gas stations where Venezuelans could fill up their tanks for pennies a gallon thanks to generous government subsidies.
For diehard Chavistas who camped out all night outside the military hospital where the former paratrooper died, Wednesday was the first full day without a leader many described as a father figure, an icon in the mold of the early 19th century liberator Simon Bolivar. Others saw the death of a man who presided over Venezuela as a virtual one-man show as an opportunity to turn back the clock on his socialist policies.
For both sides, uncertainty ruled the day.
It was not immediately clear when the presidential vote would be held, or where or when Chavez would be buried following Friday’s pageant-filled funeral.
Venezuela’s constitution specifies that the speaker of the National Assembly, currently Diosdado Cabello, should assume the interim presidency if a president can’t be sworn in.
But the officials left in charge by Chavez before he went to Cuba in December for his fourth cancer surgery have not been especially assiduous about heeding the constitution, and human rights and free speech activists are concerned they will flaunt the rule of law.
Tuesday was a day fraught with mixed signals, some foreboding. Just a few hours before announcing Chavez’s death, Maduro virulently accused enemies, domestic and foreign — clearly including the United States — of trying to undermine Venezuelan democracy. The government said two U.S. military attaches had been expelled for allegedly trying to destabilize the nation.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.