A funeral for Hugo Chavez, and a swearing in, for Venezuela

By Jack Chang

Associated Press

Published: Friday, March 8 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

A screen showing a video image of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez plays in front of the site where Chavez's funeral ceremony will take place as people gather outside the military academy in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday, March 8, 2013. Friday's funeral promises to be a final turn on the world stage for Chavez after 14 years in power, though in some ways the former paratrooper is not going anywhere: Venezuela announced Thursday that it would embalm his body and put it on permanent display. Chavez died on March 5 after a nearly two-year bout with cancer. He was 58.

Rodrigo Abd, Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela — With folk songs, a soaring choir and the brandishing of a symbolic sword, Venezuela bade goodbye to President Hugo Chavez in an emotional funeral Friday as his hand-picked successor pledged to fiercely defend his socialist revolution.

The ceremony drew world leaders, athletes and left-wing celebrities, while multitudes of Chavez supporters watched on giant screens outside. The day is set to end with the swearing-in of Vice President Nicolas Maduro as interim president, despite criticism from opposition leaders that the move is unconstitutional.

The funeral launched with Venezuela's national youth orchestra singing the national anthem, led by famed conductor Gustavo Dudamel. A government-allied congressman later belted out cowboy songs from Chavez's native Barinas state.

With much of the world watching, Maduro delivered a fiery speech repeating some of the aggressive rhetoric he had used just hours before announcing Chavez's death Tuesday.

His words, and even the tone of his voice, echoed the speeches that Chavez so often delivered, even if the crowds of red-shirted supporters this time were kept far away from the ceremonies held in a military academy.

"We have smashed the curse of betrayal of the country and we will smash the curse of defeat and regression, Maduro shouted, his voice breaking, and in tears.

Maduro also reached out to the United States, which he had accused of giving Chavez cancer just three days before.

"We love all the people of our America, but we want relations of respect, of cooperation, of true peace," Maduro said. "We want ... a world without empires, without hegemonic nations, a world of peace that respects international law."

More than 30 political leaders including Cuba's Raul Castro and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stood at attention before Chavez's flag-draped coffin, and the guest list in large part reflected Chavez's foreign policy of strident criticism of the U.S. and friendships with nations at odds with Washington.

The United States was represented by Rep. Gregory Meeks, a New York Democrat, and former Rep. William Delahunt, a Democrat from Massachusetts.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson delivered a short sermon, preaching rapprochement between his country and Venezuela.

"Venezuela is not alone," Jackson said. "With Maduro, grant him wisdom and support as he keeps hopes and dreams alive, as he picks up the baton and makes a great nation greater. We pray God today that you will heal the breach between the U.S. and Venezuela."

More conservative leaders from nearby nations also joined the funeral, including Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Chilean President Sebastian Pinera.

Ahmadinejad won one of the biggest rounds of applause of leaders entering the funeral.

"It is a great pain for us because we have lost a friend," Ahmadinejad said upon his arrival at the airport the night before. "I feel like I have lost myself, but I am sure that he still lives. Chavez will never die. His spirit and soul live on in each of our hearts."

At the end of the funeral, Maduro handed a replica of Simon Bolivar's sword to the family of Chavez, who had modeled himself on the independence hero and even added "The Bolivarian Republic" to the nation's name.

On Thursday, the acting leader announced the government would embalm Chavez's body and put it on permanent display, a decision that touched off strong passions on both sides of this deeply divided country, which Chavez ruled for 14 years before succumbing to cancer at the age of 58.

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