'Our hearts are broken' – Chavistas mourn leader
THEY poured on to the sweltering streets of Caracas in a crimson tide of mourning; a pulsing mass of humanity loyal to the memory of Venezuela's departed leader.
Long before the flower-strewn coffin of Hugo Chavez was even visible, the ground shook with the thump-thump of drums and the chanting of the 'Chavistas', promising that the Bolivarian revolution would survive the demise of its charismatic, hyperactive leader.
"Chavez Vive! La Lucha Sigue!" – Chavez Lives! The Struggle goes on! – rhymed their rhythmic cries that echoed under motorway flyovers, along narrow streets and bounced off the crumbling tenements and office blocks whose roofs and balconies were filled with onlookers.
The cavalcade spent most of the day winding its way at walking pace through Caracas, emerging at 10am from the Military Hospital where Chavez died on Tuesday night, leaving Venezuela in a political limbo.
It began quietly, emerging behind a balding priest in white vestments, escorted by two soldiers in ceremonial brocade. Chavez's bereaved mother Elena Frias de Chavez leaned, grief-stricken, against her son's casket.
But as it passed on its way to the Military Academy where Chavez will lie in state until tomorrow's funeral, the procession gathered its own throbbing momentum.
Chavez may have been scoffed at for his self-aggrandising schemes by the developed world, but in the slums of Caracas the love he was shown yesterday by his poor legions was not forced.
"What am I to say? Chavez is dead!" wailed Jasmin Camero, a 38-year-old schoolteacher after the coffin passed. "Tell the world Chavez is dead. Our hearts are broken, our hearts are Chavez. He gave us education, he gave us houses, he gave us poor a country to be proud of."
There were many more like her, weeping and chanting their affection for a man who ruled Venezuela for 14 years and made sure that the splurging of Venezuela's oil wealth on projects for the poor was indivisible from the promotion of his own larger-than-life personality.
In the United States, Obama issued a statement reaffirming Washington's support for the "Venezuelan people and its interest in developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government".
"As Venezuela begins a new chapter in its history, the United States remains committed to policies that promote democratic principles, the rule of law, and respect for human rights," the statement read.
The presidents of Iran and Syria paid tributes to the "comandante". Bashar al-Assad – who received Chavez's backing in his fight to hold onto power in a civil war – said the "demise of this unique leader" was a "great loss for me personally and the Syrian people".
Another figurehead to benefit from Chavez's vociferous support was President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran. Mr Ahmadinejad returned the favour by predicting that Chavez would rise from the dead. This "brave, strong" and "revolutionary" leader would, he said, return to life at the same time as the 12th Imam, also known as the "perfect human".
But away from the infectious theatre of the procession, Venezuelans hinted at their own lack of confidence in the future, filling supermarket aisles and petrol station forecourts to stock up on supplies.
Yesterday Vice President Nicolas Maduro, the successor officially designated by Chavez, walked grimly alongside the hearse that carried Chavez's coffin. Earlier he had declared he will campaign for the presidency in the soon-to-be announced election that the constitution says must follow Chavez's death in 30 days, but even among the crowds yesterday there were those who dared to murmur their misgivings.
"Maduro lied to the people," said 54-year-old Niriam Perez, who professed loyalty to the Chavez revolution but also doubts about his putative successor who said he had not been honest about the seriousness of Chavez's condition before he died.
Sensitive to the national moment, Venezuela's opposition leadership has kept its counsel ahead of Friday's funeral, but in the more well-to-do neighbourhoods whose residents see Chavez as a destroyer of Venezuela's vast potential there was anger.
"Hate and division was the only thing he spread," 28-year-old computer programmer Jose Mendoza told reporters in an eastern Caracas opposition bastion. "He mistreated everyone who disagreed with his government."
But even opposition leaders say these arguments must wait until after Venezuela has had time to lay its hyperactive leader to rest. That will happen tomorrow when many world leaders will gather in this city for one last act in the extraordinary life and death of Hugo Chavez.