Caracas: Countless Venezuelans filed past the remains of president Hugo Chavez on Thursday, giving the sign of the cross and military salutes as an era ended and elections loomed in the oil-rich nation. Chavez lay in state in a half-open glass-covered casket in the Caracas military academy, wearing olive green military fatigues, a black tie and the iconic red beret that became a symbol of his 14-year socialist rule.
The government said more than two million people came to get a glimpse of the former paratrooper, whose oil-fuelled socialism earned him friends and foes at home and abroad. Many had stood in line through the night.
"He's in there, but my comandante is immortal," said Saul Mantano, a 49-year-old salesman with a hat emblazoned with Chavez's name and Venezuelan flag. "I didn't want to see him dead, but it's a reality now."
Soldiers and civilians, many clad in red, walked past the casket with just seconds to look at their commander, pumping their fists to their hearts or blowing kisses. They were forbidden from taking pictures or carrying cellphones. Chavez lay with a red sash across his torso bearing the word "militia" -- the 120-strong armed civilian force that he had formed.
A four-man honor guard and four tall candelabras flanked the coffin, with a golden sword at the foot of it. "Seeing him was very impressive. It brought back all the memories of what we have done together in 14 years thanks to him," said 34-year-old driver Chanel Arroyo.
The country gave Chavez a rousing send-off through the streets of Caracas on Wednesday, one day after he lost his battle with cancer at the age of 58, with a sea of people in red shirts throwing flowers on his coffin. At the front of the procession was his hand-picked successor, vice president and interim leader Nicolas Maduro, who walked the seven-hour march to the academy and is now gearing up for elections that must be called within 30 days.
The academy is where Chavez found his political calling, inspiring him to lead a failed coup in 1992 before being elected in 1998. "Maduro is already our president. It's what Chavez wanted and we will vote for him when elections come," said one mourner, Margarita Martinez, 37. The academy opened to the public after a ceremony late Wednesday with Chavez's tearful mother, three daughters and son, a group of aides and the presidents of Argentina, Bolivia and Uruguay, all close allies.
The crowd applauded and then chanted: "Chavez lives, the struggle goes on!" "His face was beautiful. We will remember him the way he was, the way he lived," Yelitze Santaella, governor of Monagas state, told AFP after seeing the body, which will lie in the academy until a state funeral on Friday.
Chavez's death was a blow to his supporters and to the alliance of left-wing Latin American powers he led, and it has plunged his OPEC member nation into uncertainty. Maduro, 50, has now taken on the leadership of Chavismo, an ideology that poured the nation's oil riches into social programs.
He will likely face off in elections against opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chavez in the October presidential election. Under Chavez, Venezuela's oil wealth has underwritten the Castro brothers' communist rule in Cuba, and he repeatedly courted confrontation with Washington by cozying up to anti-Western governments in Russia, Syria and Iran.
His death brought hundreds of thousands of supporters to the streets of Caracas to fete a man whose revolution delighted the poor and infuriated the wealthy. But in a country divided by Chavez's populist style, opinions of his legacy differ, with opposition supporters in better-off neighborhoods angry at the runaway murder rate, high inflation and expropriations.
"Things have gotten worse. Venezuela used to be safer, we could afford to buy things," said Inacio Da Costa, a 20-year-old university law student eating ice cream in a square in the opposition's bastion in the east of the city. "There's a lack of security and our money is worth nothing."
Chavez was just as polarizing on the international stage, often confronting the United States while forging ties with Western bugbears like Russia, China, Iran and Cuba. His closest ally, Cuban President Raul Castro, said before flying to Caracas that his friend Chavez had died "victorious" and "invincible" after "entering through the great door of history."
On his arrival, Castro joined the leaders of several Latin American nations. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Belarussian strongman Alexander Lukashenko will be also be among 33 heads of state or government attending Friday's state funeral, the government said.
Maduro has picked up on Chavez's anti-US rhetoric, expelling two US military attaches and accusing Venezuela's enemies of somehow causing the president's cancer. But a senior US official said the United States -- denounced by Chavez as "the empire" -- hopes to forge a "positive relationship" with Venezuela once the upheaval of Chavez's death is over.
Crowds outside the military academy sporadically chanted that Chavez should be buried in the national pantheon along with his hero, Simon Bolivar, who led much of South America to independence from Spain in the 19th century. Details of the funeral and final resting place were to be announced later Thursday.