Mere hours before the burial of Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan government announced that the late president was to lie in state for at least seven more days before being embalmed so that he might be viewed for eternity.
Seen by critics as a move to stifle the gathering forces of opposition, interim president Nicolas Maduro made the announcement on state television as pictures were being broadcast of the enormous lines of Venezuelans waiting to pay their respects.
Speaking live, he declared the body of the late president would remain in the military academy where Chavez’s dreams for the future of Venezuela were born.
The government’s reason for the sudden decision, less than 12 hours before the scheduled funeral, was that the demand to see Mr. Chavez lying in state was simply too great to ignore.
At the same time, 22 world leaders were to arrive for the funeral, including Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the leaders of Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia and Cuba.
“We have a responsibility to the Venezuelan people,” declared former energy minister Rafael Ramirez, who is now president of Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA. “The turnout to see the president has been far higher than we anticipated and the desires of the people must come first.”
“It’s quite transparently a move to crush the opposition,” said Luis Vincente Leon, the head of local polling firm Datanalysis. “Perhaps the socialists weren’t prepared for elections, but there’s no way the opposition would have expected this.
“There’s a lot more to this decision than the feelings and needs of the Venezuelan people, but national feeling holds huge sway in Venezuela, and keeping Mr. Chavez visible and broadcastable is likely to give the socialists a stronger start when the campaigning begins.
“It was a mistake from the start to think that they wouldn’t try something like this during the election campaign, but there’s nothing to say that they can’t, it’s simply rather underhanded. But that’s they way Venezuelan politics works.”
“It’s not cheating,” said opposition supporter and leading local businessman Mario Suarez. “They’re simply operating within what they can get away with.”
“Chavez hasn’t yet reached the status of a martyr yet, but he’s certainly seen as a hero,” Mr. Suarez said in a telephone interview immediately after the government’s decision was made public, “so the government knows that the longer they can keep him fully in the public conscience, the greater the chance they have of winning this new election by a landslide.”
Reaction to the news that Mr. Chavez was to be embalmed for display saw warmer reactions from chavistas waiting to see his body lying in state.
“We lived with Chavez as our commander for 14 years, what are seven more days in comparison to that? said Maripili Garcia, a Chavez supporter dressed in red speaking from Chacao, a district of Caracas of divided political opinion. “We are proud Venezuelans and we are proud of our commander. The government is showing its compassion.”
The government has yet to set a date for the emergency election, although it is expected to be announced – along with the decision that Mr. Maduro will stand for the presidency against Henrique Capriles – after Mr. Chavez’s state funeral on Friday.