x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Ahmadinejad wipes away tears as Venezuela bids farewell to Chavez

The Iranian leader tells Chavez loyalists that 'Chavez will never die, his soul and spirit are alive in the hearts of fighters'.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's president, arrives in Caracas to attend the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's state funeral on Friday. EPA
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's president, arrives in Caracas to attend the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's state funeral on Friday. EPA

CARACAS // Some of the world's most notorious strongmen wept openly yesterday at the lavish state funeral of Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan leftist whose revolution won him friends and foes at home and abroad.

The Venezuelan conductor and Los Angeles Philharmonic maestro Gustavo Dudamel led an orchestra's rendition of the national anthem to open the ceremony as Chavez lay in state in a flag-covered coffin after a 14-year reign.

Chavez's political heir, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, placed a replica of the golden sword of South American independence hero Simon Bolivar on his mentor's wooden casket as more than 30 heads of state applauded.

Presidents Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran and Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus sat next to each other, wiping away tears as a band played one of Chavez's favorite sentimental songs, typical from his native land.

Mr Ahmadinejad, looking emotional, hugged Venezuela's foreign minister, Elias Jaua, and pumped both fists in the air toward the Chavez loyalists.

When he had landed early Friday, the Iranian leader, whose nation's nuclear programme has it locked in a diplomatic stand-off with the West, said "Chavez will never die, his soul and spirit are alive in the hearts of fighters".

Several Latin American leaders, including Cuban President Raul Castro, were invited to stand around the coffin, which was closed and covered in the yellow, blue and red colors of Venezuela, in an honor guard.

As well as alliances with a motley crew of anti-Western autocrats, Chavez had also built friendships with some Hollywood stars, including the Oscar-winning actor Sean Penn, who attended the funeral.

Chavez's body will lie in state for seven more days and officials said his body will be embalmed and preserved "like Lenin" to rest in a glass casket in the military barracks where he plotted a failed coup in 1992.

Venezuela is giving Chavez a long farewell, with hundreds of thousands of people filing past his open casket nonstop since Wednesday. Though popular among the nation's poor, his policies alienated the upper-middle class.

Mr Maduro was due to be sworn-in as acting president pending elections. But the opposition, which is gearing up to challenge Mr Maduro in upcoming elections, said it would boycott the event.

Leaders from Africa and the Caribbean attended the funeral but European nations sent lower-level delegations while the United States was represented by its charge d'affaires and two Democratic Party politicians.

Spain sent the heir to its throne, Prince Felipe, while Russian President Vladimir Putin, another close Chavez ally and opponent of the West, dispatched his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov.

For the public viewing, Chavez was in a half-open, glass-covered casket in the academy's hall, wearing olive green military fatigues, a black tie and the iconic red beret that became a symbol of his 14-year socialist rule.

People blew him kisses, made the sign of the cross or gave military salutes as they walked by. A four-man honor guard and four tall candelabras flanked the coffin, with a golden sword at the foot of it.

In a country divided by Chavez's populist style, opinions of his legacy vary, with opposition supporters in better-off neighborhoods angry at the runaway murder rate, high inflation and expropriations.