Hugo Chavez coffin parades past Venezuela's ills

By Jack Chang

Associated Press

Published: Friday, March 15 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Bolivia's President Evo Morales rides along with Venezuela's acting President Nicolas Maduro as Maduro in a military vehicle leading a procession carrying the coffin containing the remains of Venezuela's late President Hugo Chavez in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday, March 15, 2013. Chavez's body is being transferred Friday from the military academy where it has been lying in state to the military museum that will serve as final resting place.

Fernando Llano, Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela — The road from the military academy where Hugo Chavez's body has been lying in state to the hilltop museum where he'll be displayed indefinitely is lined with some of the most dangerous slums on the planet. It runs under bridges in dire need of repair and past grocery stores with no groceries.

Tens of thousands of Venezuelans gathered along that route Friday to watch the late president's body cross the city in yet another choreographed show designed to keep Chavez supporters in thrall, at least until an April 14 election scheduled to replace him. Afterward, people will have to go on living with the problems that Chavez left behind.

This tense, relentlessly gray capital embodies many of Venezuela's problems, with crumbling apartment towers and food lines often sharing the same sidewalk with cheering crowds eager to greet their departed Comandante.

"More than anything, the government continues fighting with everyone, and does everything badly," said Francisco Olivero, a 54-year-old carpenter who lives with his wife and five children in the poor neighborhood of Catia, just blocks from the funeral route.

Like many Venezuelans, Olivero said wartime-levels of street violence all over the city were his top worry.

"They kill people here every day," he said. "I've lost friends, relatives."

Even as thousands of bused-in police academy cadets gathered along the route, Olivero and his wife Yelitza Acuna were hiding from the sun while waiting in a block-long line to buy flour, coffee, butter and other food staples that they said have been hard to come by for about two years.

The store, which sat along the most trafficked part of the route, happened to be selling the raregoods that day, drawing a crowd of people desperate for a few bags of flour.

"The word spread in the street, and we all came running here," said Oliver's wife, Yelitza Acuna, a cook's assistant.

Economists say government-imposed price controls designed to dampen inflation topping 20 percent have made it impossible for store owners to sell basic foods at a profit, sparking widespread shortages. For their part, officials have accused suppliers of hoarding the goods and have invaded warehouses looking for sugar, flour and other food items in short supply.

"You can't find anything," said 27-year-old lawyer Anglys Bericote, who rode a bus for four hours from the town of Cajigal to view the funeral cortege. Wearing a heart-shaped "I am Chavez" pin, she said she was taking the opportunity to also stock up on basic goods. People in her town have even had to go without toothpaste and toilet paper, she said.

"It's all the plan of the private businesses," she said, repeating the government's line of attack. "They want to hold onto everything so that it riles up people."

A few blocks from the military museum, where a ceremonial fire awaited the arrival of Chavez's body, Jonathan Rodriguez watched government supporters pass by in red T-shirts bearing Chavez's image. Raw sewage trickled from a broken pipe down the street, and the 37-year-old insurance agent scolded his two sons for playing nearby.

"The majority of them don't complain about the problems here," Rodriguez whispered about the passing Chavez supporters. "It's as if they didn't exist."

Rodriguez said he doesn't have that luxury. Violent crime is so bad in his part of town that he and his family shut themselves inside their home every night by 6 p.m., only opening the iron gate covering his front door the next morning. Yet for Rodriguez, staying indoors might not be enough to protect him and his family from the war outside. Several weeks ago, a stray bullet penetrated the zinc roof of a neighbor's house.

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