CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelans stripped of their larger-than-life leader awoke to an uncertain future on Wednesday, with jittery throngs flocking to supermarkets and gas stations to stock up, and anti-American vitriol infusing official statements and the chants of the street.
Hugo Chavez’s body was being brought from the hospital where he died to a military academy where it will remain until the late president’s funeral Friday, an event that promises to draw leaders from all over Latin America and the world. Already, the presidents of Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia have arrived for the ceremony.
Even in death, Chavez’s orders were being heeded. The man he anointed to succeed him, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, will continue to run Venezuela as interim president and be the governing socialists’ candidate in an election to be called within 30 days.
In a late night tweet, Venezuelan state-television said Defense Minister Adm. Diego Molero had pledged military support for Maduro’s candidacy against likely opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, despite a constitutional mandate that the armed forces play a non-political role.
The streets of Caracas were free of the usual weekday morning traffic as public employees, schoolchildren and many others stayed home on the first day of a week of national mourning. The only lines were at gas stations where Venezuelans could fill up their tanks for pennies a gallon thanks to generous government subsidies.
For diehard Chavistas who camped out all night outside the military hospital where the former paratrooper died, Wednesday was the first full day without a leader many described as a father figure, an icon in the mold of the early 19th century liberator Simon Bolivar. Others saw the death of a man who presided over Venezuela as a virtual one-man show as an opportunity to turn back the clock on his socialist policies.
For both sides, uncertainty ruled the day.
It was not immediately clear when the presidential vote would be held, or where or when Chavez would be buried following Friday’s pageant-filled funeral.
Venezuela’s constitution specifies that the speaker of the National Assembly, currently Diosdado Cabello, should assume the interim presidency if a president can’t be sworn in.
But the officials left in charge by Chavez before he went to Cuba in December for his fourth cancer surgery have not been especially assiduous about heeding the constitution, and human rights and free speech activists are concerned they will flout the rule of law.
Tuesday was a day fraught with mixed signals, some foreboding. Just a few hours before announcing Chavez’s death, Maduro virulently accused enemies, domestic and foreign — clearly including the United States — of trying to undermine Venezuelan democracy. The government said two U.S. military attaches had been expelled for allegedly trying to destabilize the nation.
But in announcing that the president was dead, Maduro shifted tone, calling on Venezuelans to be “dignified heirs of the giant man.”
“Let there be no weakness, no violence. Let there be no hate. In our hearts there should only be one sentiment: Love. Love, peace and discipline.”
Capriles, who lost to Chavez in the October presidential election and is widely expected to be the opposition’s candidate to oppose Maduro, was conciliatory in a televised address.
“This is not the moment to highlight what separates us,” Capriles said. “This is not the hour for differences; it is the hour for union, it is the hour for peace.”
Capriles, the youthful governor of Miranda state, has been feuding with Maduro and other Chavez loyalists who accused him of conspiring with far-right U.S. forces to undermine the revolution.
Across downtown Caracas, shops and restaurants began closing and Venezuelans hustled for home, some even breaking into a run when the news was announced. Many looked anguished and incredulous.
“I feel a sorrow so big I can’t speak,” said Yamilina Barrios, a 39-year-old clerk who works in the Industry Ministry, her face covered in tears. “He was the best this country had.”
Others wished Chavez’s departure had come through the ballot box.
Carlos Quijada, a 38-year-old economist, said that “now there is a lot of uncertainty about what will happen.”
He said a peaceful transition depends on the government. “If it behaves democratically we should not have many problems,” Quijada said.
Like most Venezuelans, he said his big concern is ending violent crime that afflicts all strata of society, from the poor Chavez wooed with state largesse to the economic elite at the core of the political opposition.
Venezuela has the world’s second-highest murder rate after Honduras: 56 people for every 100,000 according to government figures, which nongovernmental groups say are understated.
Late Tuesday, the armed forces chief, Gen. Wilmer Barrientos, reported “complete calm” in the country.
But there had been several incidents of political violence.
In one, a group of masked, helmeted men on motorcycles, some brandishing revolvers, attacked about 40 students who had been protesting for more than a week near the Supreme Court building to demand the government give more information about Chavez’s health.
The attackers, who didn’t wear clothing identifying any political allegiance, burned the students’ tents and scattered their food just minutes after Chavez’s death was announced.
“They burned everything we had,” said student leader Gaby Arellano. She said she saw four of the attackers with pistols but none fired a shot.
Outside the military hospital where Chavez’s body was visited by loved ones and allies, an angry crowd attacked a Colombian TV reporter.
“They beat us with helmets, with sticks, men, women, adults,” Carmen Andrea Rengifo said on RCN TV. Video images showed her bleeding above the forehead but she was not seriously injured.
Maduro and other government officials have railed against international media for allegedly reporting rumors about Chavez’s health, although RCN wasn’t one of those criticized.
After nightfall, several hundred people gathered at Bolivar Square, a symbolic place for Chavistas because it has a huge 9-meter-tall (30-foot-tall) statue of Simon Bolivar, the 19th century independence hero whom Chavez claimed as his chief inspiration.
Some arrived singing Venezuela’s national anthem and holding up posters of Chavez.
One man began shouting through a megaphone a warning to the opposition: “They won’t return.” The crowd then joined in, chanting: “They won’t return.”
Chavez leaves behind a political movement in control of a nation that human rights activist Liliana Ortega, director of the non-governmental group COFAVIC, describes as a badly deteriorated state where institutions such as the police, courts and prosecutor’s offices have been converted into tools of political persecution and where most media are firmly controlled by the government.
Maduro, whose government role had grown after Chavez went to Cuba for treatment, was belligerent early Tuesday. He reported the expulsion of one of the two U.S. attaches, and also said that “we have no doubt” that Chavez’s cancer, first diagnosed in June 2011, was induced by “the historical enemies of our homeland.”
Maduro compared the situation to the death of the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, claiming Arafat was “inoculated with an illness” and said a “scientific commission will prove that Comandante Chavez was attacked with this illness.”
Chavez’s inner circle has long claimed the United States was behind a failed 2002 attempt to overthrow him, and he has frequently played the anti-American card to stir up support. Venezuela has been without a U.S. ambassador since July 2010 and expelled another U.S. military officer in 2006.
U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell denied the U.S. was trying to destabilize Venezuela and said the claim “leads us to conclude that, unfortunately, the current Venezuelan government is not interested in an improved relationship.”
Ventrell added that the suggestion that Washington somehow had a hand in Chavez’s illness was “absurd.”
He hinted the U.S. could reciprocate with expulsions of Venezuelan diplomats.
Chavez rose to fame by launching a failed 1992 coup, but never groomed a successor and many Venezuelans find Maduro, a former union leader, lacking his political heft.
Some political analysts believe that has made him more inclined to go on the attack as the presidential campaign begins in earnest.
Javier Corrales, an Amherst College political scientist, said he was concerned about the “virulent, anti-American discourse” under Maduro. “It seems to me this is a government that is beginning to blame the United States for all its troubles.”
“This is very dark,” he said. “This is the most nebulous period, the most menacing that the government has been, and the actions have been pretty severe.”
Those actions have included charging a leading opposition politician, Leopoldo Lopez, with influence peddling in a 15-year-old case that his lawyers say has passed the statute of limitations.
Lopez, who calls the charges ludicrous, ran logistics for Capriles in the Oct. 7 election after the government barred him from running for office.
In the absence of Chavez, the government is more aggressively seeking “to selectively destroy” opposition activists, Lopez said.’
Christopher Toothaker and Jorge Rueda in Caracas, Vivian Sequera in Bogota, Colombia, and Luis Alonso and Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.
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Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.