Today was the first full scheduled day of Chávez’s lying in state. Media outlets reported queues stretching kilometres; most likely these were underplayed. When we arrived around midday, many had been waiting since early hours of the morning, some since the coffin passed yesterday afternoon. Much has been said of Chávez’s relationship with his people – accusations of vote-buying and paid assistance to demonstrations have been frequent. This afternoon, suffering hours under the burning sun, over a million people stood in line to bid farewell to a leader they love.
The boulevard approaching the military avenue of Los Proceres had less of the sombre atmosphere of yesterday, and more of a festive market feel. The few that were selling tricolour caps at sky-high prices were today joined by hoards of street vendors flogging Chávez-themed stash: blow-up dolls, photographs, badges and earrings, armbands, cups and flags. Food stands were set up at every ten paces and men walked the strip with giants sticks of candyfloss. It was a strange meeting of ideologues specific to Venezuela: we celebrate the death of a left-wing Leader through buying mass-produced goods emblazoned with his face. Localised capitalism at its socialist best.
We walked Los Proceres in attempt to find the root of the ‘official queue’ among dozens of offshoots. Failing this, we eventually joined a skinny line about halfway down the avenue. There we stood, almost still, watching the people go by. There were all sorts: indigenous groups, militant evangelicals, students from the Andes, police groups from the coast, old women with no shoes, kids dressed as Bolívar, girls with pregnant bellies, dozens of boys on bikes. Some three hours in, a friend of a friend arrived, his shoes covered in mud. “You’ll never get anywhere here. The only means to see Chávez is elbowing your way to the coffin.” We took heed, and abandoned civilisation – his words – to head for the chaos upfront.
As we walked again, it worryingly evident that there was an acute lack of crowd control surrounding the military school. This seemed like a huge oversight from the authorities, familiar enough with the dangers of raw emotions in enormous groups of people. For the hundreds and thousands of mourners there was a handful of civil protectors, the majority young trainees not yet graduated from police academy. There was no real order; as the crowds became thicker this became clearer, and slightly more surreal.
We approached the entrance to the academy, where an unending crowd packed into a finite space, treading mud and losing patience. Cries of “We want Chávez” made conversation impossible, tens of people scaled makeshift stages and men in wheelchairs were passed over peoples’ heads. There was an atmosphere of panic, of unknowing and desperation without a viable outlet. People started to spot Vice President Nicolás Maduro in the distance, standing atop something comparable to a fete float. The unforgiving sunlight made it difficult to see, but sure enough he was there; a figure marked out against the barrios on the hills in the background.
As his vehicle brought him towards the people, he demanded silence – his requests echoed through the confinement, word for word. “Silence” “Silence” “Silence”. “You need to calm down. We need to calm down,” he said in a half-terrified, half-cross voice. “We need to pray. Let’s have a prayer.” And so the people prayed, a murmuring Padre Nuestro, a few angry old ladies hushing those not paying attention. “Now listen. Pushing will get us nowhere. Chávez did not tell us to push. You people on top of that stage, get off.” “GET OFF”. “Get off. Seriously or I won’t go on. Ok. You all want to see Chávez. We know that. We won’t close this area until everyone has seen Chávez.” A cheer went up. “So stop pushing.”
The announcement went out shortly after Maduro’s extra-official appearance: the body to stay on display at least seven days after tomorrow’s funeral, at the military museum in Caracas. It seemed a rather drastic, but extremely necessary, decision for a country that tends to bury its dead within 24 hours. Shortly after that, the declaration was trumped by the announcement that his body would be embalmed, “like Lenin and Mao Zedong”. Perhaps a move that is less wise , this one. Eva Peron’s body was also embalmed, to somewhat disastrous effects. Still, for those who, like me, did not get the opportunity to see Chávez today, it must be a relief. Now we can see him forever.