The longest queue in the world. Hundreds of thousands of people wait for hours, for days, for one last glimpse of their President.
As we crawl along the motorway into Caracas, we can see buses from every corner of the country. From Yaracuy to Bolivar, every state is represented. The next day, over fifty heads of state will arrive from across the globe to pay their respects at the funeral of Hugo Chavez.
The sun still blazes overhead when we make our way to Fuerte Tiuna that afternoon, the sprawling military base where Chavez’ body lays in it’s Venezuelan flag-wrapped coffin. The country that remained so close to his heart, right until his last breath.
Minutes after arriving, an open-topped bus comes to a halt within inches of the front of my wheelchair. I look up to see Nicolas Maduro, microphone in hand, calling for calm and discipline. Everyone will see Chavez, he tells the crowd, who are now chanting his name and waving. Nicolas Maduro was once a bus driver. Today, he is the Acting President of the country.
At the state funeral, tears are falling from Maduro’s eyes as he speaks, as he makes his first mark. The project of Chavez and the project of this government, he cries, are one and the same. We will never abandon that course. His arms are waving, and emotion is pouring from his soul.
According to the Constitution, new Presidential elections must be called for within thirty days of Chavez’s death. That evening, Maduro makes his way to the National Assembly, right in the heart of Caracas, to be sworn in as Presidente Encargada until then. Again, his speech is awe-inspiring. He denounces the imperialist oligarchies of the United States who, according to Maduro, must respect and learn to live alongside the insurrectionary peoples of Latin America. I grew up in London and, to put things lightly, a different political language is spoken in Venezuela.
In fact, the date of the elections is announced on the very next day. They will take place on April 14th. A historic moment it is certain to be. One of so many in recent months. If you were to arrive in Fuerte Tiuna this evening, or tomorrow, or yesterday, or the day before that, it would probably be the biggest political mobilisation you had ever witnessed. In England, I believe that there has been one demonstration of over a million people since the day I was born in 1990. In Venezuela, millions have taken to the streets on at least four occasions since the day I arrived in September.
In the National Assembly, Nicolas Maduro holds a copy of the Constitution during a monumental speech, and his monumental moustache waves from side-to-side. In Fuerte Tiuna, the Presidential Guard accompany elderly people; mothers and fathers carry babies in their arms; soldiers distribute water and oranges; and people spend the night sleeping in the endless queues. Even the wheelchair battalions find it difficult to make any headway on this occasion. In Caracas mosque, hundreds gather for Friday prayers. Musa, from Guyana, says that Chavez was the best President there ever was. On every street of Caracas there are red t-shirts, towering posters, many tributes. Chavez will live forever, they say. His ideals will certainly never pass away.
They tried to say Maduro was stupid, a friend named Jamil tells me, because he was a bus driver. Now they have seen him speak in front of the world, they can never say that again! Look at the emotion of the people, he continues, Maduro will win even more votes than Chavez did!
The elections will take place on April 14th. A nation will raise their voices once more.