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Tributes to Chavez, along with grief and misgivings

CARACAS, Venezuela — While dignitaries from around the world attended the funeral of Hugo Chavez on Friday, Angelica Rodriguez stood in a line that stretched close to a mile in hopes of getting a glimpse of him lying in state.

But her older brother, Gustavo, was much farther away, geographically and politically, having moved to Panama more than a year ago because he believed there was no future in a Venezuela run by Chavez.

"He said we're glorifying a man who does not deserve it," said Rodriguez, 23, a university student who had been standing in line for 16 hours and had many hours to go.

Chavez's death brought a massive outpouring of grief from his supporters as thousands waited outside the funeral for a chance to enter later to see his glass-covered coffin. But many other Venezuelans stayed home and expressed hope that his passing would lead to change.

"He was a man who awoke passions, for good or bad," said Claudia Astor, 41, who watched a television broadcast of the funeral and recounted her long-standing misgivings of Chavez. At her side was her mother, Norma Astor, 73, an ardent supporter of Chavez.

The proceedings also put on display the political alliances that Chavez assembled during 14 years as president, often with an eye toward confronting the United States, which he regularly pilloried as an imperialist force of evil.

President Raul Castro of Cuba sat in the front row, next to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, who at one point kissed Chavez's flag-draped coffin. Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, shed some tears.

Despite years of rough relationships with the United States, including the expulsion from Caracas on Tuesday of two U.S. military attaches who were accused of seeking to destabilize the country, there were signs that both sides were trying to put on a moderate face, at least for a day.

The United States sent Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., and William Delahunt, a former Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, who had positive contacts with Venezuelan officials in the past.

And Nicolas Maduro, who was Chavez's vice president until he was sworn in as president Friday night, had kind words in his eulogy for the U.S. delegation, emphasizing that they were sent by President Barack Obama.

"Here there are some representatives that we greet and value," Maduro said, naming the two U.S. politicians and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was also present, though not part of the official delegation.

In his eulogy, Maduro, Chavez's handpicked political heir, praised his mentor for starting Venezuelan down the path of socialism, although he stressed that there was still a long way to go.

"You can go in peace, commander," Maduro said. "Mission accomplished. The battle continues."

Maduro was sworn in as interim president in a special session of the National Assembly and then immediately put on the presidential sash. But opposition lawmakers boycotted the session, arguing that the constitution was being violated.

The wrangling presaged the bitter political contest that is to come as the country heads to a special election to replace Chavez.

Tributes to Chavez, along with grief and misgivings 03/08/13 [Last modified: Saturday, March 9, 2013 3:06am]
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