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World bids farewell to Chavez

His casket closed and cloaked in the Venezuelan tricolour, Hugo Chavez was honoured at a funeral ceremony in Caracas attended by 32 heads of state, 54 foreign delegations, and hundreds of thousands of grieving Chavistas.

The controversial Venezuelan President, known as "El Comandante", died on Tuesday aged 58, after a two-year fight against cancer. The mourners at the city's military academy were led by Mr Chavez's mother, Elena Frias, and his chosen successor, Nicolas Maduro, who was due to be sworn in as the country's interim President following the funeral.

Many of the foreign delegates came from Latin American nations such as Bolivia, Nicaragua, Colombia and Guatemala. Cuba was represented by its 81-year-old President, Raul Castro, a close friend of Mr Chavez. Diplomats from Spain, Russia and China were joined by the British Ambassador to Venezuela, Catherine Nettleton.

Alexander Lukashenko, President of Belarus, was seated alongside the Iranian leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; both received standing ovations as they were introduced as part of an "honour guard", flanking the coffin.

Roy Chaderton, Chavez's former Foreign Minister and now the Venezuelan Ambassador to the Organisation of American States (OAS), said he was not surprised to see so many foreign dignitaries at the event. "The opposition is surprised, because they are feeble-minded," he told The Independent. "They said that under Chavez, Venezuela had become an isolated state, but the opposite is true: it's no small thing that so many leaders took time away from their own national issues to be here today."

Despite anti-American rhetoric in the days since Mr Chavez's death, the US was represented at the funeral by Democratic Congressman Gregory Meeks, and former Democratic Congressman William Delahunt. Civil rights leader Rev Jesse Jackson spoke at the ceremony, telling mourners: "We are neighbours and share the same hemisphere. We play baseball and trade resources and fight drugs together, and share dreams together."

One of Mr Chavez's regional allies, Argentinian president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, left Caracas the night before the funeral, citing the heat and her health. Ms Fernandez, who visited the casket on Thursday, wrote on Twitter: "How I would like to be there! I can't: the heat, my chronic hypotension and the doctor prohibit it." Meanwhile, the late President's civilian supporters massed in the tropical heat outside the academy in red Chavista t-shirts, craning to see the ceremony on giant television screens. The service ended with a lengthy address from Mr Maduro, in which he praised the late President and expounded his philosophy, saying Chavez had wanted "to contribute to the preservation of life on the planet, and of the human species".

On Thursday, Mr Maduro announced the late President's body would be embalmed before going on permanent display in a crystal casket at a military museum in Caracas, "just like Ho Chi Minh. Just like Lenin. Just like Mao Zedong." This, Mr Maduro told Venezuelans, would mean "his people will always have him… He belongs to you."

Embalmer bids for Chavez job

Frank Malabed, embalmer to celebrities, socialites and the occasional dictator, has offered his services for the preservation of late President Hugo Chavez. The Manila-based mortician, who embalmed Philippine despot Ferdinand Marcos, said that he had not been contacted for the job, but that he was "expecting a call".

"I make people beautiful even in death," the 62-year-old told AFP. "What is important is they must not delay. The longer they delay it, the more difficult it would be."

- The Independent

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