Final march held in honor of Chavez

Jordi Miro
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People cry as the coffin with the remains of late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez passes

People cry as the coffin with the remains of late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is taken from the Military Academy to his resting place at the former "4 de Febrero" barracks

Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans thronged the streets of Caracas on Friday to bid a final farewell to late president Hugo Chavez a month before elections to pick his successor.

Friends and family of the man who ruled the oil-rich South American country for 14 years joined high-ranking government and army officials at a mass in his honor, sending the leftist's remains on a last journey through the capital.

"He became an exemplary president, the only one who remembered the poor," said Diosdado Cabello, president of the National Assembly, at the military academy where Chavez's casket has been on display for the past nine days.

"Those who scoff and say we no longer have Chavez, you are wrong," he added defiantly. "We must comply with the comandante's orders: unity, struggle, battle, victory."

Chavez succumbed to cancer on March 5 at age 58, plunging a deeply polarized Venezuela into mourning amid growing uncertainty over its future.

His daughter Maria Gabriela, donning dark glasses, broke through the applause to thank her father for "giving us the homeland back" and promised to defend his legacy, as Chavez's mother wept incessantly.

Also in attendance was Bolivian President Evo Morales, a close Chavez ally. The proceedings were led by acting President Nicholas Maduro.

The casket was then loaded into a black hearse for the 12-kilometer (7.5-mile) procession by foot, motorcycle, car, jeep and on horseback to the army barracks-turned-museum that the former paratrooper had used as his headquarters during a failed 1992 coup attempt.

Located on a hilltop, his "Mountain Barracks" resting place overlooks a sprawling public housing complex in the poor western end of the capital that once was a fervent Chavez stronghold.

Huge crowds of supporters -- many sporting red shirts bearing Chavez's likeness -- watched as the hearse, flanked by riders in ceremonial red military uniforms on horseback, made its way slowly down the Paseo de los Proceres, a boulevard honoring the country's founders.

"I came because he is our president," 51-year-old Judith Santana told AFP. "The best tribute we can pay tribute is to keep fighting for our revolution and to be happy, not sad."

The march resembled last week's seven-hour procession during which Chavez's coffin was transferred to the academy from the military hospital where he died.

What happens to his body in the longer term is still an open question, with Maduro saying this week it may be too late to embalm Chavez "like Lenin" and put him on permanent public view, as he had earlier suggested.

Also up in the air is a proposal to inter his remains in the National Pantheon next to those of South American independence leader Simon Bolivar, Chavez's personal hero and the inspiration of his leftist movement.

On Tuesday, the ruling party postponed debate in parliament on a constitutional amendment that would make this possible without waiting 25 years.

Huge lines of mourners had filed past Chavez's casket at the military academy chapel in the days before the procession to pay tribute to the "comandante," laid out in an olive green uniform and trademark red beret.

Up until the last minute, his followers streamed in to say their goodbyes, some even reciting poems or verses.

"He did so much for us," said Aura Luque, a retired secretary.

Venezuelans will vote for a new president on April 14.

In the running are Maduro, Chavez's handpicked successor, and opposition leader Henrique Capriles, whom Chavez beat in October elections.