Standing in Line to See Chavez


A supporter of Venezuela's late President Hugo Chavez yells a slogan as she waits for a chance to view Chavez's body lying in state at the military academy in Caracas March 12, 2013. Presidential candidates Nicolas Maduro and Henrique Capriles have begun Venezuela's election race with scathing personal attacks even as mourners still file past Hugo Chavez's coffin. REUTERS/Tomas Bravo (VENEZUELA - Tags: POLITICS) - RTR3EW62



The official period of mourning for Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president who died of cancer last week, ended on Tuesday. But try telling that to Venezuelans, who continue to pour into the capital, Caracas. They've formed huge lines outside the military chapel where Chavez's body lies in state.

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Over the past 14 years, Chavez led a socialist revolution on behalf of the poor. He presented himself as the savior of Venezuela and a cult of personality built up around him.

That's why in the initial days after Chavez died, it took more than 24 hours for those paying their respects to reach his coffin.

A week after his death, the line is still two miles long, but it's well-organized. Perhaps due to a temporary dry law, nearly everyone behaves. Many people sit on portable stools. Soldiers pass out free oranges and water. The mood in the line is often upbeat because, even though Chavez is gone, he seems to be everywhere.

Venders hawk everything from Chavez t-shirts to Chavez earrings. Giant video screens play old episodes of his TV show, Hello Mr. President. The government has also hired bands to keep the crowd entertained with songs about Chavez.

In line, I meet Maria Teresa Soto, a school teacher. She's making her second attempt to see the body of Chavez.

"I want to see Chavez. I've been three days crying for Chavez," she says.

Soto has been standing in line since four o' clock in the morning, and for long periods, the line doesn't move. Then suddenly, everyone's rushing forward like when the doors open for a stadium rock concert.

Further along I meet Kildare Cols, a dentist who works in one of the free clinics that Chavez installed in the country's poor barrios. Cols lives in the western city of Merida and spent 14 hours on a bus getting here.

"Chavez gave so much to the country that I'm willing to sacrifice a few days to honor him," says Cols.

But there's a large dose of politics at play. Like many of the mourners, Cols was excused from his job to travel to Caracas aboard a government bus. He and the other passengers were first dropped off at a campaign rally for Nicolas Maduro, Chavez's hand-picked successor, who's running in next month's election.

The opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, claims the government is exploiting the death of Chavez to drum up votes for Maduro. Even so, the grief seems, for the most part, genuine and profound.

Waving my press card, I blatantly cut in front of thousands of people in line and enter Ft. Tiuna, the military base where Chavez lies in state. Soldiers instruct us to take off our hats and tuck in our shirts. The crowd that was once chanting revolutionary slogans grows quiet. Each of us gets just a few seconds at the coffin; no cameras or tape recorders allowed.

When the moment finally comes, it's like a visiting a solemn wax museum. Chavez's face is bloated and his cheeks are streaked with rouge. He wears a green military uniform and a red beret prompting many to give him a final military salute.

Afterwards, tears flow. But some seem to draw comfort from the experience, among them, Beysi Linares, a beautician. She finally got in to see Chavez, after four attempts, and she tells me it was worth the wait.

Even those who dropped out of the line in exhaustion will have many more chances. Like Mao, Lenin and Ho Chi Minh, the body of Chavez will be embalmed and put on permanent display.