A woman sits with three children outside the funeral venue in Caracas before the ceremony began. (AP)
Washington, March 8: Hugo Chavez has joined a pantheon of five leaders of their respective nations whose bodies are on display to remind posterity of the contribution they made to their peoples and to their countries’ histories.
Venezuela’s interim leaders announced last night that they would embalm the body of the President who died on Tuesday and put it on perpetual display. Vice-President Nicolas Maduro, who was to be sworn in tonight as interim President, referred to Vladimir Lenin and Mao Zedong while announcing the decision.
“Just like Lenin, Mao Zedong,” Maduro said in a tear-stained address on television, “the body of our leader will be embalmed, and it will… be surrounded by crystal glass forever, present forever, and always with his people.”
Other than Lenin and Mao, leaders whose bodies have been embalmed and preserved for public viewing are Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh and North Korea’s Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Josef Stalin’s body was similarly put on display but it was removed in 1961 and buried as part of a de-Stalinisation programme in the Soviet Union.
This is the first time, however, that an elected leader’s body has been preserved in any democracy. It is not clear how the Venezuelan people will eventually react to the idea and there is no indication yet what Chavez’s wishes were for his final resting place.
In the former Czechoslovakia, the body of Klement Gottwald, the country’s first communist President who died five days after Stalin, was embalmed and preserved in a Prague mausoleum until 1962. Bulgarians preserved the body of their first communist leader, Georgi Dimitrov, until 1990, but his mausoleum in Sofia was not dismantled until 1999.
In the Catholic Church, it was once believed that if the embalmed body of a Pope did not decompose, it was tantamount to a miracle. That belief was abandoned after the decomposition of the remains of Pius XII, who was the Pope from 1939 to 1958. Among the papal remains that are on display are those of Pius X, the head of the Church from 1903 to 1914, and John XXIII, the Pope from 1958 to 1963.
Venezuela’s government decided after today’s ceremonies to extend for seven days the opportunity for people to pay their respects to the departed leader. This was because of a sea of sobbing, distraught Venezuelans who had not had a chance yet to say farewell to the President.
Huge crowds lined the streets of Caracas on Wednesday when Chavez’s body was taken from the military hospital where he had been treated to a military academy, where it is lying in state.
On Friday, at last count, as the last rites for Chavez got under way, about 50 governments were represented at his funeral service in Caracas, although Venezuela’s interim leadership gave just over 48 hours’ notice of the arrangements.
India was represented at the funeral service by the minister of state for corporate affairs, Sachin Pilot, and a functional delegation.
Pilot is carrying a condolence message from Manmohan Singh in which the Prime Minister praised Chavez for leaving behind “an enduring legacy of striving for social justice. President Chavez also made a tremendous contribution to the development of closer relations among the countries of the developing world. We are grateful for his personal efforts in strengthening relations between India and Venezuela.”
Singh pledged to “continue to work towards even closer relations with the friendly people of Venezuela” under Chavez’s successors.
Yesterday, the Rajya Sabha observed a minute’s silence in memory of the Venezuelan leader and Vice-President Hamid Ansari said: “India cherishes the special bond of friendship that was greatly strengthened during the charismatic leadership of President Chavez.”
Thirty of these 50 governments which sent leaders to bid final farewell to Chavez were represented by heads of state, among them, Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff and firm Chavez allies in Latin America, Rafael Correa, President of Ecuador, and Evo Morales of Bolivia.
A surprise presence was that of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. Chavez and Santos harboured serious differences and their countries teetered on the edge of a conflict under Santos’s predecessor.
It was a reflection of the impact Chavez had on all Latin America, even among those who disagreed with him, that Santos said in a special televised speech to his people that “everyone knows that we had a lot of differences in our economic vision, in our governing style, in our understanding of social progress. The obsession that united us, which was the foundation of our relationship, was peace in Colombia and the region. If we have advanced in a solid peace process, with clear and concrete progress, advances that have never been achieved before… it is also thanks to the unlimited dedication of President Chavez.”
A star at the final tributes to Chavez was Fidel Castro’s brother Raul Castro, the Cuban President for five years who announced last month that he would retire at the end of his term, disappointing Cuba’s enemies who often accused the communist country of dynastic rule.