Venezuelans Mourn The Fiery Leader They Had Deep Connections To Thousands of Venezuelans have been lining the streets of Caracas, grieving the death of their larger-than-life leader, Hugo Chavez. The outpouring of emotion reflects the huge impact that "El Comandante" had on Venezuelans — and gives a sense of the void he leaves behind.

Venezuelans Mourn The Fiery Leader They Had Deep Connections To

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In Venezuela, thousands of mourners are paying their last respects to their larger-than-life leader, Hugo Chavez. The man who ruled Venezuela for 14 years died on Tuesday. His body is now lying in state as presidents and dignitaries fly in for the funeral tomorrow. The outpouring of emotion reflects the huge impact Chavez had on Venezuelans. And as we hear from NPR's Juan Ferraro in Caracas, it gives a sense of the void Chavez leaves behind.


JUAN FERRARO, BYLINE: A bugle sounded on huge loudspeakers, and a recording of Chavez exhorting his followers - as he often did - then played; and throngs of people devoted to the late president walked through the streets of Caracas. It was solemn, and some gently cried, many wearing the red of Chavez's leftist populist movement, which overturned the old economic and political order in this country.

They filed in to see his body lying in an open casket, half of it draped with the Venezuelan flag as it lay in state. This was at a poignant place - the military academy where the president had been a young cadet, training to become the officer who would later lead a failed coupe that made Chavez a household name.

VANESSA CONTRERAS: (Speaking foreign language)

FERRARO: I feel very sad because he was our leader, the president of the poor who worried about the poor, says Vanessa Contreras(ph), a young lawyer who works for the state.

CONTRERAS: (Speaking foreign language)

FERRARO: We'll never have a leader like that again in our country, she adds. Chavez died in a military hospital here, after fighting cancer for about two years. He leaves behind a deeply polarized nation with a dysfunctional economy, rampant violent crime and high inflation. He also used his high-flying diplomacy to try to build a worldwide alliance against the United States, one that included countries like Iran and Syria.

Today, though, Chavez was remembered for the deeply personal connection he forged with people like Maritza Lafratta(ph), who's 49.

MARITZA LAFRATTA: (Speaking foreign language)

FERRARO: He had so much charisma with people, she says. When he got on that stage, he connected. The people cried, screamed. They didn't know what to do. Chavez, of course, also used the country's oil wealth to shower his followers with social programs. That improved lives, and people remembered that today. That's why Jesus Ramirez, age 50, wanted to say goodbye in person.

JESUS RAMIREZ: (Speaking foreign language)

FERRARO: I'm here, says Ramirez, because I belong to one of the missions that our president left behind. By missions, he means a hodgepodge of programs to bring education and health care to poor slums. Ramirez earned his GED.

RAMIREZ: (Speaking foreign language)

FERRARO: He lives in our hearts; he lives in the Venezuelan people for the bounty that he left us, Ramirez says. As Venezuelans moved toward the academy, music played from loudspeakers - militant, revolutionary music.


FERRARO: Some of the mourners did ponder what the future will hold. Venezuelans know there will be an election and that Chavez's vice president, Nicolas Maduro, will be the government's candidate. Chavez told the country as much back on December 8th, when he made his last public comments before undergoing complex surgery from which he never recovered. Juan Ferraro, NPR News, Caracas.

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