Venezuela, World Leaders Mourn Hugo Chavez

Heads of state including Cuba's Raul Castro and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad traveled to the city of Caracas to pay tribute to controversial Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez at his state funeral.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Leader from around the world have arrived in Venezuela to pay their final respects to President Hugo Chavez, who used his country's oil wealth to put in place his vision of socialism during 14 years in power. And this larger-than-life leader presumably will continue to inspire his followers. The Venezuelan government plans to embalm his body and keep it on display in a glass coffin.

NPR's Juan Forero is in Caracas following events there. He joins us now. Juan, it sounds like this funeral is an extraordinary event. What is happening right now?

JUAN FORERO, BYLINE: Well, there's a lot of pomp. This is like the funeral of a royal. There are a lot of people there, just thousands and thousands of people in the streets, all clad in red that is from Chavez's movement, the Chavismo movement. And presidents from around the world have arrived. There's supposed to be more than 30 coming, and among those are presidents like Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Alexander Lukashenko from Belarus, as well as presidents from around Latin America.

The United States has a very small delegation. There's a congressman, a former congressman, and an official from the U.S. embassy here.

WERTHEIMER: You spoke with people in the streets this morning, people who were trying to get sort of close to the ceremony, Chavez supporters. It sounds like his people don't want him to go.

FORERO: They don't want to say goodbye. This was a president who over 14 years was able to very effectively marshal up the masses and keep them agitated and also keep them happy through a number of social programs. But he also had sort of an intangible connection with the people. He was an amazing populist who was able to really connect and link up and forge ties with them. Many people saw him as a father figure or as a brother.

And so for them, this is just like a member of the family having died. So it's very, very difficult for them. But as you mentioned, they are going to embalm him, and the vice president said last night that what they're going to do is they're going to put him in a glass case and he's going to be in a museum here in the center of Caracas for a while, and then I think he's going to be moved to a more permanent home.

WERTHEIMER: The country has been talking for weeks about Chavez's death and what the political environment would look like afterward. I guess afterward starts today.

FORERO: Afterward starts today. We're in the midst of the funeral at this moment, and then this evening they're going to inaugurate a new president. That's going to be Nicolas Meduro, who is the vice president at this moment. And Nicolas Meduro has been out there. People have been seeing him a lot of lately. He's on television. He's inaugurating projects. He's giving speeches. They've known that his was going to come, and so he's been out there preparing, because there is going to be an election, but tonight he is going to be inaugurated and then tomorrow is just another era in Venezuela.

WERTHEIMER: So is this a permanent arrangement? Will Meduro continue as president?

FORERO: No, it's not. The constitution calls for an election, and that election could take place in a month. That seems to be unclear because officials just are not talking about when the election exactly is going to be staged. But that's what's expected. At the very least we're talking about some weeks. And Meduro has to win this election. If he does win, then he will be in power for six years. The opposition obviously sees this as a great opportunity to finally end Chavismo. But Meduro really has the upper hand. He has the sympathy vote and that's a key thing in a country like Venezuela.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Juan Forero in Caracas, Venezuela. Thank you very much.

FORERO: Thank you.

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