Venezuelans mourn Chavez while election looms

Souvenir mugs of Venezuela's late President Hugo Chavez are offered for sale as thousands waited to view his body in state, at the military academy in Caracas March 8, 2013. Credit: Reuters
Souvenir mugs of Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chavez are offered for sale as thousands waited to view his body in state, at the military academy in Caracas March 8, 2013.
Credit: Reuters

Venezuela will likely hold a presidential election in mid-April, sources said on Saturday, as acting President Nicolas Maduro tries to benefit from an emotional outpouring for his late mentor, Hugo Chavez, and step into his shoes.

Multiple sources from the opposition and election board said April 14 was the probable date, though some in the government were pushing for the symbolic April 13 anniversary of Chavez’s return to power after a short-lived 2002 coup.

Maduro, a physically imposing former union leader who served as foreign minister and vice president under Chavez, has vowed to keep Chavez’s self-styled socialist revolution alive.

He is expected to face opposition leader Henrique Capriles, 40, the centrist governor of Miranda state who lost to Chavez in a vote last October.

Opinion polls have shown Maduro as the likely winner, but Chavez’s opponents were impatient and said they wanted to be given a chance to end “Chavismo” at the voting booth.

“We want new elections now. We want change. We are tired of the Chavez era. It’s been 14 years,” said Yesenia Herrera, 33, a cook at a Chinese restaurant in an affluent quarter of Caracas.

Maduro was sworn in as acting president in Congress on Friday and handed the red, yellow and blue presidential sash.

“I asked (the election authority) to comply with legal and constitutional obligations and immediately call elections,” Maduro, 50, told Congress as he cemented his position as heir-in-waiting.

Chavez was immensely popular among the poor and they have vowed to back Maduro. Several million people have filed past his casket to pay their last respects and were still visiting him on Saturday.

The Supreme Court had earlier ruled that Maduro did not need to step down in order to campaign, but the move was denounced by opponents as a violation of the constitution and a “fraud.”

As Maduro spoke in Congress, residents of some wealthy neighborhoods of Caracas banged pots and pans in a traditional form of protest.

At one building in a wealthy corner of Caracas, people drank wine and whisky around a swimming pool, rejoicing at Chavez’s demise. They toasted each other, “Happy goodbye, Chavez, we will not miss you!”

HERO OR AUTOCRAT?

Chavez was a hero to millions of mostly humble supporters for using Venezuela’s oil wealth to finance heavy social spending during his rule, but he was seen as an autocrat by his opponents. He died on Tuesday at age 58 after a two-year battle with cancer.

“The excluded and invisible, the ‘losers’ of savage capitalism, were made visible and victorious with Chavez,” Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said on Twitter.

Like communist leaders Lenin, Stalin and Mao, Chavez’s remains are to be embalmed and put on display “for eternity.”

An eclectic cast of celebrities, leftist and center-right presidents, and rogue leaders attended Chavez’s state funeral on Friday. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a close ally, broke with protocol to kiss the coffin, while Oscar-winning actor Sean Penn was also in attendance.

It is likely to be a particularly bitter election campaign in the OPEC nation, which boasts the world’s largest oil reserves.

The opposition had accused the government of trampling on the constitution during its handling of Chavez’s battle with cancer, and is furious that Maduro was allowed to take on the job of caretaker president while he campaigns for the job.

“This transgression is unprecedented in the history of the republic,” opposition lawmaker Maria Corina Machado said on Twitter.

Capriles called it an abuse of power.

“To become president, the people have to elect you,” he said on Friday. “No one elected Nicolas president.”



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