WINDHOEK - President Hifikepunye Pohamba joined world leaders in paying tribute to the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, who died of cancer on Tuesday at the age of 58.
“Namibia shares your loss and wishes that the people of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela will find strength during this difficult time of bereavement,” Pohamba said in the message of condolence to the Venezuelan vice-president Nicolas Maduro. Pohamba described Chavez as someone who “was a true revolutionary whose outstanding contribution to the social and economic development and the upliftment of the living standards of the Venezuelan people will always be remembered from generation to generation”.
“He was indeed a champion for regional economic integration and poverty eradication in Latin America, the Caribbean and the world at large, on the basis of South-South cooperation for democracy, equality and justice,” Pohamba said. Venezuela foreign minister Elias Jaua said Chavez’s hand-picked successor Maduro would take over as interim leader pending the next election, declaring: “It is the mandate that comandante President Hugo Chavez gave us.” Venezuela has declared a week of national mourning, and a new vote would be called within 30 days. Chavez’ body will lie in state at a military academy, where it has been since yesterday, until a memorial service with foreign leaders tomorrow.
Chavez was showered with tributes from Latin American leaders like Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, who called Chavez a “great Latin American” and a “friend of the Brazilian people.” Cuba declared its own mourning period for a leader who helped prop up the island’s economy with cheap fuel and cash transfers, and dubbed Chavez a “true son” of revolutionary icon Fidel Castro. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Chavez had fallen “martyr” to a “suspect illness”, while hailing his close ally for “serving the people of Venezuela and defending human and revolutionary values”. Russia, China and Iran also paid tribute to Chavez, who had cultivated close ties with bugbears of the West as a way of thumbing his nose at Washington.
Chavez’ body was to be escorted by a four-horse cortege from the Caracas military hospital where he died from cancer to a military academy he considered his second home. The firebrand leftist and former paratrooper ruled the oil-rich nation for 14 years. The death brought thousands of Venezuelans to public squares across the nation, weeping and celebrating the life of a man whose oil-funded socialist revolution delighted the poor and infuriated the wealthy. Hundreds of people spent the night in front of his hospital, waving Venezuelan flags and chanting “we are all Chavez!”
A banner hung over the hospital fence, reading: “Chavez lives, the battle continues!” Schools were closed and huge crowds were expected along the capital’s streets to see his remains being taken to the military academy. The armed forces were to fire a 21-gun salute and “there will be a salvo every hour until his burial,” defense minister Diego Molero said. Some of Chavez’s closest allies had already arrived yesterday ahead of a state funeral tomorrow, including Argentine President Cristina Kirchner, Uruguay’s Jose Mujica and Bolivia’s Evo Morales.
US President Barack Obama said the United States would support the Venezuelan people and described Chavez’ passing as a challenging time. “As Venezuela begins a new chapter in its history, the United States remains committed to policies that promote democratic principles, the rule of law, and respect for human rights,” Obama said. - Additional reporting by AFP/Reuters