A flag-draped coffin carrying the body of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez floated over a sea of supporters Wednesday on its way to a military academy where it will lie in state.

Away from the procession route, jittery Venezuelans facing an uncertain future without their larger-than-life leader flocked to supermarkets and gas stations to stock up on supplies, preparing for the worst a day after Chavez succumbed to cancer.

Tens of thousands lined the streets or walked with the casket in the capital, many weeping as the body approached, led by a grim drum major. Other mourners pumped their fists and held aloft images of the late president, amid countless waving the yellow, blue and red Venezuelan flag.

"The fight goes on! Chavez lives!" shouted the mourners in unison, many through eyes red from crying late into the night.

Chavez's bereaved mother Elena Frias de Chavez leaned against her son's casket, while a priest read a prayer before the procession left the military hospital where Chavez died at the age of 58. Vice-President Nicolas Maduro, Chavez's anointed successor, walked with the crowd, along with cabinet members and uniformed soldiers.

"I feel so much pain, so much pain," said Yamile Gil, a 38-year-old housewife. "We never wanted to see our president like this. We will always love him."

The former paratrooper will remain at the military academy until his Friday funeral, which promises to draw leaders from all over the world. Already, the presidents of Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia have arrived to join the mourners.

Though many Venezuelans are divided over Chavez's legacy, his loyal supporters turned the streets into a sea of red on Wednesday, the first of seven national days of mourning. During his 14-year reign, Chavez created a socialist, anti-American regime that polarized both Venezuelans themselves and the world around them.

Chavez's funeral will be held on Friday in the nation's capital, but no date or place has been announced for his burial.

Hours after his death, many described Chavez as a charismatic leader either loved or hated by his people.

"His legacy has two faces," Venezuelan journalist Mary Triny Mena told CBC News. Some Venezuelans saw Chavez as a hero who understood the needs of the poor, launching several initiatives to help the impoverished. But his time in power, she said, was marked by a disrespect of basic human rights.

Human Rights Watch, an organization working to protect human rights, said in a statement after Chavez's death that his presidency was characterized by "open disregard for basic human rights guarantees."

Still, he managed to elevate the nation's poorest to a higher standard of living, said Canada's former ambassador to Venezuela John Graham. Chavez also helped to close slightly the gap between the rich and the poor in Venezuela through his socialist programs, he added.

The bus driver leading Venezuela

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Venezuela's vice-president Nicolas Maduro. (Miraflores Palace/Reuters)

Vice-President Nicolas Maduro, who announced Chavez's death, has been named Venezuela's interim president.

Maduro, 50, lacks the vibrant personality that made Chavez a one-man political phenomenon in Venezuela, but he has the advantage of being Chavez's hand-picked successor. The former bus driver won Chavez's trust as a loyal spokesman and echoed the president's stances. Maduro is also a well-regarded negotiator.

Still, Maduro may find himself locked in a presidential campaign within a month, where he will likely face Chavez's last opponent, Henrique Capriles.

The Associated Press

Alasdair Baverstock, a freelance reporter in Caracas, described the national mood Wednesday afternoon as "one of loss." He said a man from a vehemently anti-Chavez region told him Wednesday that Venezuela had lost one of the greatest men the country ever produced.

"People aren’t really thinking of the future elections," he said. "Today seems more for personal reflection."

Constitutional discrepancies jw

 

Yet hours after Chavez's death, politicians and analysts were already wondering how the nation will choose Chavez's successor, as Maduro has been named the nation's interim president — contrary to the constitution.

Maduro — the man Chavez lauded as having a charismatic "gift for the people" — is now having that very trait questioned, with many skeptics saying he lacks the personality to carry a revolution Chavez built on his larger-than-life personality.

Maduro announced Chavez's death Tuesday afternoon on national television. Chavez had been undergoing treatment for an unspecified pelvic-area cancer, but the cause of his death was not released.

Venezuela's constitution mandates an election be called within 30 days, but it is currently unclear when an election will be held.

The constitution specifies that the speaker of the National Assembly, currently Diosdado Cabello, should assume the interim presidency if a president can't be sworn in. But Maduro — who will be the governing socialists' candidate in the upcoming election  — is filling the post instead.

"The lines are really kind of blurry right here," freelance reporter Andrew Rosati told CBC News from Caracas. He said constitutional discrepancies have been present ever since Chavez was unable to attend his inauguration ceremony Jan. 10.

When Chavez's health didn't allow him to attend, lawmakers indefinitely delayed his swearing-in, prompting the opposition to question the constitutional validity of that decision.

Chavez instructed Venezuelans to vote for Maduro in a worst-case scenario, said Rosati. With Chavez's most recent approval ratings being around 60 per cent, he said, "all signs are looking to a continuation of his legacy."

Maduro's potential questioned

Locals aren't convinced Maduro can continue Chavez's legacy.

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Venezuela's Vice-President Nicolas Maduro will serve as interim president until an election is called following President Hugo Chavez's death Tuesday. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

While Maduro is likely to win the future election thanks to Chavez's blessing, national momentum and a high sympathy vote, Gupta said, he doesn't have the same charisma.

"Will Chavismo continue without Chavez?" Gupta asked.

Chavez's charisma carried the socialist revolution experiment in Venezuela, said Stephen Sackur, a BBC television host who once interviewed Chavez in his presidential palace, adding his personality will help the governing party in the short-run gather a large sympathy vote from Chavez supporters.

However, Maduro may not be able to carry the same political clout, as many Venezuelans want to see massive change in the country.

"It’s going to be a battle for those who are behind the revolution to hang on to their regime over the coming months and years," said Sackur.

Anti-American sentiments lingering

During his 14-year reign, Chavez established himself as an anti-American. In a speech before the UN General Assembly in 2006, he famously called U.S. President George W. Bush a donkey and the devil. Chavez called U.S. President Barack Obama a clown.

The most significant trait of authoritarian leaders is leaving behind very weak establishments, said Crowley. So the big question, he said, is what happens after Chavez is gone.

While Chavez distinguished himself through his anti-American platform, said Crowley, Venezuela's next leader may not take the same stance. Instead of extending Chavez's legacy, he said, Venezuela can now step back and reassess its anti-Americanism.

"If it’s Maduro, he’ll probably try to carry on the Chavez revolution. If it’s [Opposition leader Henrique] Capriles, I think he’ll move to try and re-establish a constructive relationship with the United States," Crowley said.

Maduro is already showing signs of continuing Chavez's anti-American agenda. Early Tuesday, he reported the explusion of one of two U.S. attaches, and also said that "we have no doubt" that Chavez's cancer was induced by "the historical enemies of our homeland."

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Supporters of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez react Tuesday to the announcement of his death outside the hospital where he was being treated, in Caracas. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

Maduro compared the situation to the death of the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, claiming Arafat was "inoculated with an illness" and said a "scientific commission will prove that Comandante Chavez was attacked with this illness."

Chavez's inner circle has long claimed the U.S. was behind a failed 2002 attempt to overthrow him. Venezuela has been without a U.S. ambassador since July 2010 and expelled another U.S. military officer in 2006.

U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell rejected the assertion that the U.S. was trying to destabilize Venezuela. The claim, he said, "leads us to conclude that, unfortunately, the current Venezuelan government is not interested in an improved relationship."

Ventrell added that the assertion that Washington somehow had a hand in Chavez's illness was "absurd."

Call for unity

In announcing the president's death, Maduro shifted his tone, calling on Venezuelans to be "dignified heirs of the giant man."

"Let there be no weakness, no violence. Let there be no hate. In our hearts there should only be one sentiment: Love. Love, peace and discipline."

Capriles, who lost to Chavez in the October presidential election and is widely expected to be the opposition's candidate to oppose Maduro, was conciliatory in a televised address.

"This is not the moment to highlight what separates us," Capriles said. "This is not the hour for differences; it is the hour for union, it is the hour for peace."

Capriles, the youthful governor of Miranda state, has been bitterly feuding with Maduro and other Chavez loyalists who accused him of conspiring with far-right U.S. forces to undermine the revolution.

With files from The Associated Press