Eyewitness: Venezuelans vow to continue revolution

Venezuelans accompany Chavez's coffin in Caracas, March 6.

At about 5.30pm on March 5, life in Venezuela came to a sudden halt. In a speech broadcast live, Vice President Nicholas Maduro publicly announced that President Hugo Chavez had lost his two year battle with cancer.

Maduro stated that at 4.25pm, Chavez was pronounced dead after the emergence of a severe respiratory infection the previous day.

After urging for calm, the Maduro announced a number of security measures, including the deployment of the Bolivarian National Guard and police to maintain order.

“Let there be no weakness, no violence. Let there be no hate. In our hearts there should only be one sentiment: Love.”

Like elsewhere in the country, shortly after the announcement people in the neighbourhoods of Merida started trickling out of their houses, and into the streets. Some were weeping, others spoke quietly; most were silent.

Within an hour, the main square was packed with Chavistas. Many were in tears. The rally continued until late into the night, with a public mass starting around 10pm.

Attendees joined hands and prayed. There was a heavy police presence, but the crowd was solemn.

Film maker and Chavez supporter Flor Salcedo was in the square.

The next day, she told Green Left Weekly that like many Chavistas, the news had hit her hard. “Chavez was very charismatic, he moved a lot of people with his ideas.

“I'm very sad.”

Her friends, Jackson Colmenares and Kleyzar Contreras both expressed sadness.

“When I saw the television report, I was very upset, everyone...all of Latin America is unified in grief, ” Colmenares told GLW.

Contreras said, “at first I didn't believe it, but after I watched the news...yes [I cried] when the president died.

“[He] was a leader for both Venezuela and Latin America. “I loved Chavez, he benefited many people.”

Indeed, under the Chavez administration Venezuelans have seen rapid improvements in living standards by almost all measures.

According to the Washington based Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), under the Chavez administration poverty in Venezuela has more than halved.

CEPR estimates extreme poverty has been reduced even more, with a dramatic 72% decrease within a decade of Chavez first coming to office.

Illiteracy, which was rampant before the revolution, was recognised as eradicated by UNESCO in 2005.

As Contreras said, that, since Chavez became president, “the poor people have been included in society”.

“I want the revolution to continue,” Contreras said.

Salcedo added: “Chavez gave hope...that it's very possible to change for the better.”

At about 10.30am on March 6, Venezuelan television aired the procession of the coffin from the military hospital where Chavez died to the Military Academy; where the body will be stored until the funeral on Friday.

After a brief religious ceremony, the coffin began a seven hour procession through a sea of red that engulfed downtown Caracas. Huge numbers of poor supports of Chavez and the revolutionary process he has lead choked the streets.

The flag draped coffin was surrounded by Maduro and members of the Bolivarian militia, civilians organised to defend Venezuela and the revolutionary government dressed in olive uniforms with red berets.

A number of Latin American leaders have flown to Caracas to attend the funeral, including Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, Uruguay’s Jose Mujica and Bolivian President Evo Morales.

A marching band accompanied the coffin, but at times was drowned out by the hundreds of thousands of Chavistas who turned out to see their beloved president one last time.

However, this was only the start of a week of mourning announced by Maduro after Chavez's death.

Schools are closed, and commemorative events are expected to continue across the country everyday. Not everyone, however, is mourning.

Between rallies, Venezuelans have also been stocking up on basic goods; many fearing shortages in the coming weeks.

A scarcity index compiled by the Venezuelan Central Bank reached a record high last December, as basic goods such as sugar, cooking oil, cornflour and even toilet paper have become increasingly difficult for consumers to track down.

There are those that blame the government, but many believe private companies are hoarding basic goods for political reasons.

Here in Merida, sugar and powdered milk are unavailable in many supermarkets. Black market traders have been taking advantage of the sugar shortage by charging over three times the regulated price.

When sugar appeared in one supermarket on February 28, word spread quickly and customers rushed in; some buying nothing but large amounts of the uncommon commodity.

However, the government has urged consumers not to hoard products and warned against ransacking.

Police have been present at some supermarkets since late February, though there have not been any reports of serious disturbances at the time of writing.

Tensions between Chavistas and the right-wing opposition, however, are also at a risk of elevating.

Government supporters rallied in Merida after the news of Chavez's death on march 5, but there were unconfirmed reports of opposition gatherings elsewhere.

Though roads around the square were blocked, in other parts of the city, opposition supporters celebrated by honking horns and cheering.

“This is a dangerous time,” Salcedo said. “[And] there may be conflicts between the Chavistas and the opposition.”

Despite the uncertainty in the air here, for now things are calm, though Colmenares expressed anxiety “for the next days and months”.

“But, the [revolutionary] process continues,” Colmenares insisted. “And people support the socialist idea.”

When asked if he would support Maduro in the upcoming presidential election, Colmenares did not hesitate to say “yes”.

Salcedo also intends to vote for Maduro, but admitted: “Maduro is important but doesn't have the charisma of Chavez.”

Contreras said: “Maduro will continue the great process. Chavez died, but I don't want the revolution to stop.”

Salcedo thinks that is an unlikely possibility. “I think socialism will continue. It's very important for Venezuela and Latin America. This is a project for human necessities, respect [and] hope.”

[Ryan Mallett-Outtrim is a journalist for Green Left Weekly based in Venezuela.]


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