Hundreds of thousands of loyalists throng the streets to catch a glimpse of Hugo Chavez’s coffin soon after it left the military hospital where he died of cancer, in Caracas, on Wednesday Image Credit: Reuters

Caracas: Venezuelans filed past the open casket of late President Hugo Chavez as he lay in state on Thursday after throngs of weeping loyalists gave the firebrand leftist a rousing farewell on the streets.

As Venezuelans began three days of goodbyes, an election to succeed Chavez loomed, after the curtain came down on a 14-year socialist presidency that heightened class tensions in the oil-rich South American nation.

Hundreds of thousands waved flags and chanted “Chavez lives” as his hearse crawled across the capital Wednesday in a seven-hour trip from the hospital where he died to the academy he once called his second home.

The former paratrooper’s hand-picked successor, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, led the procession, wearing a sombre expression and the colours of the national flag, in what was in effect his debut in an election campaign.

The coffin was then placed half-opened in the hall, surrounded by Chavez’s grieving mother Elena, who covered her face with a white handkerchief, three of his daughters, son Huguito and a granddaughter, some choking back tears.

The presidents of Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia, close Chavez allies, and a crowd of officials applauded to chants of “Chavez lives, the struggle goes on!”

The doors were then opened for ordinary Venezuelans, who stood in a huge line to pay their respects, some making the sign of the cross, others in uniform giving the military salute, as a four-man honour guard stood by stiffly.

“His face was beautiful. We will remember him the way he was, the way he lived,” Yelitze Santaella, governor of Monagas state, said after seeing the body, which was not shown directly in state-run television coverage.

Chavez’s death after a nearly two-year struggle with cancer was a blow to his supporters and to the alliance of left-wing Latin American powers, and it has plunged his OPEC member nation into uncertainty.

A new election is due to be called within what are sure to be 30 tense days, with Maduro, who took over as interim president, likely to face opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chavez in the October election.

Under Chavez, Venezuela’s oil wealth has underwritten the Castro brothers’ communist rule in Cuba, and he repeatedly courted confrontation with Washington by cozying up to anti-Western governments in Russia, Syria and Iran.

Chavez’s body, surrounded by soldiers en route to the academy where he found his political calling as a young man, will lie in state for Venezuelans to see until an official ceremony with foreign dignitaries on Friday.

People watched from their apartment windows while others climbed fences to get a better view of the hearse. Many held or wore iconic images of Chavez.

Maria Alexandra, a 46-year-old mother of six said she lived in poverty before Chavez.

“Before him, the government didn’t care about us... Now children have everything,” she said.

Others expressed hope that Chavez’s self-styled “Bolivarian Revolution” — based on using the country’s vast oil wealth for housing, education and social programmes — would live on after him.

“The leader is gone, but the ideas will never disappear,” said Roberto Galindez, 32, a former professional basketball player turned computer engineer. “Maduro has the same Chavista doctrine. He will continue with the same ideals.”