T he mood outside the Dr. Carlos Arvelo military hospital was somber. Women crowded the entrance, sobbing. Grim-faced men looked on. Many stood in stunned silence while motorbikes streamed by, their horns honking. When approached, some of Hugo Chávez’s supporters burst into tears. Normally boisterous and impassioned, they were now at a loss. “Our president is dead,” cried Sirleny Sosa, 50, a housewife. “He’s done so much for this country.”
Just hours earlier, Vice President Nicolás Maduro, clad in white, had revealed the inevitable. “We have just received the most tragic and awful information,” he said. “At 4.25 PM today March the fifth, President Hugo Chávez Frías died.” He continued, visibly distraught: “Comandante, thank you so much on behalf of these people whom you protected.”
What awaits Chávez supporters? At a recent government rally, Maduro’s attempts to emulate his boss’s charisma panned. Supporters milled around at the back of the small crowd, wearing their Chávez memorabilia and buying a range of new merchandise produced since the socialist leader’s cancer came to light nearly two years ago. With Venezuela’s constitution calling for elections within 30 days, Maduro likely will stand against Henrique Capriles, the opposition leader who lost to Chávez in October’s presidential vote.
Despite tough crowds at recent rallies, though, there is little doubt that Maduro will win, according to polls. Maduro can, for now, count on the legions of crimson-clad Chávez supporters in mourning as el Comandante’s body lies in state this week. “The order from Chávez was to rally behind Maduro,” said Sosa. “That’s what we’ll do.”
That adulation for Chávez was echoed by certain world leaders. Bolivia’s President Evo Morales said tearfully that Chávez now was “more alive than ever,” referring to the leftist ideals that Morales and other Latin American presidents share. Brazil’s government called for a minute of silence. An economic giant in the region, Brazil under former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva became one the world’s economic heavyweights while continuing social programs for the poor. It’s Lula da Silva’s policies—populist but less divisive and dogmatic—that the more moderate Capriles has tried to champion.
Politicians in the West, on the other hand, were not so forthcoming with their praise. “[Chávez’s] death dents the alliance of anti-U.S. leftist leaders in South America,” said U.S. Rep. Ed Royce, Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. “Good riddance to this dictator.” Official British and U.S. government statements were more circumspect in their criticism.
The polarization that Chávez wrought was visible in Caracas streets last night, too. While supporters wept for el Comandante at revolutionary landmarks, in the city’s wealthier neighborhoods some admitted to toasting to the death of the president, hoping for the country’s return to what they called normalcy — the boom years of the 1970s and 1980s. It was the vast disparity in wealth then, coupled with the overt corruption of political elites, that spurred Hugo Chávez’s populist takeover. This legacy still haunts the opposition, in part because many fail to accept it. “I’m not part of the old establishment,” Capriles told TIME last year. But others he is compelled to ally with are. In contrast, former bus driver Maduro plays with much more ease to Chávez’s working-class base support.
“Until now, he’s lived in the shadow of Chávez in silence, with a low profile,” said Alberto Barrera Tyszka, a Caracas political columnist who co-wrote the 2004 biography Chávez Sin Uniforme (Chávez Out of Uniform). In recent weeks, Maduro has come out of that shell, though without the success of his leader.
The question now is whether he will be able to run government with the political and personal skill that Chavez displayed, despite soaring inflation, one of the world’s highest murder rates and frequent power outages. “A very, very popular leader has died,” said Caracas-based engineer Carlos Rivero, 42. “Whether we liked him or not is not the point. He was revered by more than half the country.”