Chavez's Funeral Draws Dignitaries From Around The World

Venezuela held a funeral for late President Hugo Chavez on Friday. Audie Cornish talks to Juan Forero.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Venezuelans said goodbye to President Hugo Chavez this afternoon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

CORNISH: The country staged an elaborate funeral for Chavez, who was known the world over for challenging the United States and establishing a socialist state. There was a lot of pomp and memorializing, elevating the man who ruled Venezuela for 14 years to almost mythic status. Plenty of foreign dignitaries were there. Even the U.S. sent a small delegation.

NPR's Juan Forero has more for us from Caracas. And, Juan, this was a huge funeral. Tell me what it was like.

JUAN FORERO, BYLINE: Yes, it was a huge event. It lasted about three hours, and everyone who was close to Chavez was there. That meant that there were leaders from around Latin America, but also the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Sean Penn was there, and the Los Angeles Symphony conductor who's a Venezuelan, he was there. And also, Jesse Jackson spoke.

That was a surprise. But he was there. He led people in prayer, and he also talked about the need for Venezuela and the U.S. to show courage and repair their tattered relations, which have been very bad for many years.

CORNISH: Tell us more about the small formal delegation that the U.S. sent.

FORERO: The U.S. sent a congressman from Brooklyn, Gregory Meeks. He's been to Latin America before. And they also sent William Delahunt, who is an ex-congressman from Massachusetts. He'd been in contact with Chavez in the past. They used to have meetings. But relations have been pretty bad with Venezuela, and earlier this week, Nicolas Maduro, the vice president, basically accused the United States of infecting Chavez with cancer. So no surprise that they didn't send a big delegation.

CORNISH: And what I gather, he has been formally sworn in, that he is now president.

FORERO: Yes. He was sworn in this evening. And now, he has big shoes to fill. In fact, he keeps saying that, about how much Chavez did so much for the people here, for the world, for how he was a blessing for humanity. So he's really inflating his old leader.

Maduro clearly loved Chavez. And he cries whenever he talks about him. But you have to wonder if he's doing himself any good.

CORNISH: Nicolas Maduro, obviously, is Chavez's handpicked successor, and he took center stage today. Here's a little clip of what he had to say.

NICOLAS MADURO: (Foreign language spoken)

CORNISH: A very emotional-sounding tape. Give us the translation.

FORERO: A very emotional, but also very rambling speech. He talked there about how pure and alive Chavez was, how we're going to have him for all times, and then he broke down and cried. It was a long speech, and this was really a speech before many, many leaders from around the world.

CORNISH: Now, what about the masses who were unable to attend the funeral service itself? What are the way that they were able to participate in the day?

FORERO: It was really quite remarkable because we're talking about hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans. They got a chance to see their hero. He was on display in an open coffin since Wednesday in the same military academy he attended as a young cadet in the 1970s. They're saying that an estimated 2 million people passed by his coffin, and some of them told me they'd waited like 24 hours or more to get in to see him.

Also, if you wanted to, you could watch wall-to-wall coverage on state television. And if you haven't heard, Chavez is also going to be embalmed. He'll be on display in a glass case forever, like Lenin or Mao or Ho Chi Minh as Nicolas Maduro told the nation.

CORNISH: Well, he is, of course, favored to win the election, I gather. And I understand that that is coming up soon.

FORERO: Yeah, that's expected. The constitution says 30 days after a president's death, an election has to be called, so there's some debate here about whether it will really happen in a month or take some more weeks. But Maduro is the favorite over the opposition candidate. He's been beside Chavez for years. And increasingly, he's been playing a big role on the political stage, so he's been giving speeches, he's been in front of the TV cameras. And a lot of pollsters say that it has helped him enormously that Chavez, in his very last speech, told Venezuelans that Maduro was his guy, that they should vote for him.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Juan Forero in Caracas, Venezuela, talking about today's funeral for President Hugo Chavez. Juan, thank you.

FORERO: Thank you.

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