Caracas: World leaders, athletes and left-wing celebrities gathered at a music-filled state funeral honouring Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on Friday, with multitudes waiting outside, the start of a day that will end with the swearing in of his hand-picked successor as interim president.
The funeral at a military academy where Chavez has been lying in state began with Venezuela's national youth orchestra singing the national anthem, led by famed conductor Gustavo Dudamel. A government-allied congressman later belted out cowboy songs from Chavez's native Barinas state. The streets outside took on a carnival atmosphere, with military bands launching into marches and an expanse of supporters wearing the red of Chavez's socialist party. Street vendors sold paper replicas of the presidential sash, which many people in the line slipped over their shoulder.
Throngs watched the ceremony on huge monitors under the blazing sun, with some complaining of a lack of bottled water and bathroom facilities. A line to see Chavez's body stretched 2 kilometres was halted as the funeral got under way. In the funeral hall, more than 30 political leaders including Cuba's Raul Castro and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stood at attention before Chavez's flag-draped coffin. Many of them were welcomed by Nicolas Maduro, the vice president. The glass-topped coffin, which has been open since Wednesday, was shut for the funeral.
US Rep Gregory Meeks, a New York Democrat, and former Rep William Delahunt, a Democrat from Massachusetts, represented the United States, which Chavez often railed against even as he sold the country billions of dollars in oil each year. The Rev Jesse Jackson was called on to speak, and television cameras also captured Hollywood star Sean Penn in attendance.
"It is a great pain for us because we have lost a friend," Ahmadinejad said upon his arrival at the airport overnight. "I feel like I have lost myself, but I am sure that he still lives. Chavez will never die. His spirit and soul live on in each of our hearts."