Venezuela’s Chavez dies, officials call for unity
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Some in anguish, some in fear, Venezuelans raced for home on Tuesday after the government announced the death of President Hugo Chavez, the firebrand socialist who led the nation for 14 years.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro’s voice broke and tears ran down his face as he appeared on national television to announce that Chavez died at 4:25 p.m. local time (3:55 p.m EST; 1755 GMT) “after battling hard against an illness over nearly two years.”
He did not say what exactly killed Chavez, although the government had announced the previous night that a severe new respiratory infection had severely weakened him.
Just a few hours earlier, Maduro made a virulent speech against enemies he claimed were trying to undermine Venezuelan democracy.
But as he announced the death, Maduro called on Venezuelans to be “dignified inheritors of the giant man” Chavez was.
“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.”
All across downtown Caracas, shops and restaurants begin closing and Venezuelans hustled for home, some even breaking into a run.
Many had looks of anguish and incredulity on their faces.
“I feel a sorrow so big I can’t speak,” said Yamilina Barrios, a 39-year-old clerk who works in the Industry Ministry, her face covered in tears.
“He was the best this country had,” she said, disconsolately weeping. “I adore him.
“I hope the country calms down and continues the work that he left us, continues in unity and the progress continues,” Barrios said.
Among the nervous was Maria Elena Lovera, a 45-year-old housewife.
“I want to go home. People are crazy and are way too upset.”
In the only immediately known incident of political violence, a group of masked, helmeted men on motorcycles, some brandishing revolvers, attacked about 40 students who had been protesting for more than a week near the Supreme Court building to demand the government give more information about Chavez’s health.
The attackers, who wore no clothing identifying any political allegiance, burned the students’ tents and scattered their food just minutes after the death was announced.
“They burned everything we had,” said student leader Gaby Arellano. She said none of the attackers fired a shot but that she saw four with pistols.
Maduro called on Venezuelans to convene in the capital’s Bolivar Square, named for the 19th century independence hero Simon Bolivar, who Chavez claimed as his chief inspiration.
The vice president also called on the opposition to respect “the people’s pain.”
“Those who never supported the comandante Hugo Chavez, respect the pain of the people. This is the moment to think of our families, of our country.”
Chavez leaves behind a socialist political movement firmly in control of the nation, but with some doubt about how a new leadership will be formed.