The heat has been suffocating in Caracas for the past three days. According to old Venezuelan wisdom, an unrelenting sun means rain on the horizon. Sure enough, the rain fell yesterday, around about the time that Nicolas Maduro announced the death of Hugo Chávez at 4.25pm on March 5th, 2013. The initial reaction felt close to something like panic. The capital isn’t pleasant during rush hour at the best of times: yesterday, the usual atmosphere of irritation and annoyance was replaced with a dense feeling of fear and uncertainty. Immediately after the televised statement, hundreds of thousands poured into the metro. Packed carriages were silent.
Despite predictions of unrest and violence, this silence sat heavily on Caracas throughout the night. From my apartment in the east – a sector inhabited mostly by sympathisers of the opposition – I heard three or four gunshots in the distance, then nothing. All national television channels broadcasted a mixture of live official announcements and iconographic images of Chávez’s presidency. We learnt of the funeral arrangements for Friday and a week’s national mourning. Twitter was manic, the city was at home.
Residential suburbs were equally calm early this morning. Other than a group gathered around a bakery television, my block was almost empty until ten o’clock, when Chávez’s remains left the Military Hospital and a group of supporters on motorbikes arrived at the state television channel’s headquarters. They chanted: “Chávez vive; la lucha sigue” – “Chávez lives, the fight goes on”. Ten, fifteen minutes went by, then they carried on their way.
The same strange silence of yesterday filled the metro today, until we reached Plaza Venezuela – one of the city’s two transfer stations. Here, hundreds and hundreds noisily made their way towards the route of the funeral cortege in groups of six, eight, then. Dressed almost unanimously in red, they carried flags and flowers, pictures of Chávez, banners and homemade posters. I felt an oscillation between celebration and lamentation that I have only experienced in Latin America.
The roads leading to Los Proceres – Caracas’ prized and primped military sector – were filled with thousands of mourners on foot and hundreds on motorbikes. Army trucks handed out food and water to those waiting for the coffin to pass beneath the sweltering heat of midday. Street sellers flogged flags and nationalist clothing. Llanera music – Chávez’s favourite – blared from car stereos and speakers mounted on vans. Some sat under the shade of trees, others waited patiently at the edge of the pavement. People were willing to talk. There were jokes and moments of reflection.
As the afternoon advanced, many arrived looking tired after the 8km walk from the Military Hospital in the centre towards the Academia Militar in the south. The crowds became dense at around four in the afternoon, some six hours after the coffin had departed from Chávez’s place of death. There was little distinction between the procession and those watching: people jumped down
from the pavement and scrambled up from the road. After a long wait the coffin eventually passed, barely visible among the many that accompanied the hearse on foot. Draped in a tricolour flag and covered in solitary flowers, Chávez’s casket disappeared in an instant, swallowed by those who followed him.
Tears were held back, I think, until after the cortege went by and the television cameras arrived.Thousands followed the procession to begin the wait to see the president lie in state, flooding the emblematic avenue red. In the haze of the evening sun, I could just about make out the outline of the Military Academy, its flag at half mast. I waited a while, alone – my friends lost in the havoc – then decided to go home. The metro was almost empty; I suppose most had decided to wait out the night for the chance to say a final farewell. Back in the east, the sun had set and only a few shops were open. Small groups of people in civil clothing sat talking in hushed voices, keeping a low profile. “This is it, friend,” I overheard one man say, “Men die. But ideas live on.”