By JACK CHANG and E. EDUARDO CASTILLO
The coffin containing the remains of Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chavez is carried from the military academy, at the start of a procession to the military museum, his final resting place, in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday, March 15, 2013. Venezuelans lined up to bid their last farewell to Hugo Chavez on Friday. Chavez was 58 when he died of an undisclosed type of cancer on March 5. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The road from the military academy where Hugo Chavez’s body has been lying in state to the hilltop museum where he’ll be displayed indefinitely is lined with some of the most dangerous slums on the planet. It runs under bridges in dire need of repair and past grocery stores with few groceries.
Tens of thousands of Venezuelans gathered along that route Friday to watch the late president’s body cross the city in yet another choreographed show designed to keep Chavez supporters in thrall, at least until an April 14 election to replace him. Afterward, people will have to go on living with the problems that Chavez left behind.
This tense, relentlessly gray capital embodies many of Venezuela’s problems, with crumbling apartment towers and food lines often sharing the same sidewalk with cheering crowds eager to greet their departed Comandante.
“More than anything, the government continues fighting with everyone, and does everything badly,” said Francisco Olivero, a 54-year-old carpenter who lives with his wife and five children in the poor neighborhood of Catia, just blocks from the funeral route.
Like many Venezuelans, Olivero said wartime-levels of street violence all over the city were his top worry.
“They kill people here every day,” he said. “I’ve lost friends, relatives.”
As thousands of bused-in police academy cadets gathered along the route to prepare for the procession, Olivero and his wife, Yelitza Acuna, hid from the sun while waiting in a block-long line to buy flour, coffee, butter and other food staples they said have been hard to come by for about two years.
The store, which sits along the most trafficked part of the route, happened to be selling the rare goods Friday, drawing a crowd of people desperate for a few bags of flour.
“The word spread in the street, and we all came running here,” said Olivero’s wife, who is a cook’s assistant. Later, Chavez’s coffin traveled down the street in a black hearse, to the roar of thousands of admirers.
Economists say government-imposed price controls designed to dampen inflation topping 20 percent have made it impossible for store owners to sell basic foods at a profit, sparking widespread shortages. For their part, officials have accused suppliers of hoarding the goods and have invaded warehouses looking for sugar, flour and other food items in short supply.
“You can’t find anything,” said 27-year-old lawyer Anglys Bericote, who rode a bus for four hours from the town of Cajigal to view the funeral cortege. Wearing a heart-shaped “I am Chavez” pin, she said she was taking the opportunity to also stock up on basic goods. People in her town have even had to go without toothpaste and toilet paper, she said.
“It’s all the plan of the private businesses,” she said, repeating the government’s line of attack. “They want to hold onto everything so that it riles up people.”
A few blocks from the military museum, where a ceremonial fire awaited the arrival of Chavez’s body, Jonathan Rodriguez watched government supporters pass by in red T-shirts bearing Chavez’s image. Raw sewage trickled from a broken pipe down the street, and the 37-year-old insurance agent scolded his two sons for playing nearby.
“The majority of them don’t complain about the problems here,” Rodriguez whispered about the passing Chavez supporters. “It’s as if they didn’t exist.”
Rodriguez said he doesn’t have that luxury. Violent crime is so bad in his part of town that he and his family shut themselves inside their home every night by 6 p.m., only opening the iron gate covering his front door the next morning. Yet for Rodriguez, staying indoors might not be enough to protect him and his family from the war outside. Several weeks ago, a stray bullet penetrated the zinc roof of a neighbor’s house.
Almost all of Caracas’ streets empty of people by dusk as residents live under the pall of a homicide rate 20 times that of the United States. On Thursday, the U.N. Development Program issued a study finding Venezuela had the world’s fifth highest homicide rate, only behind Honduras, El Salvador, the Ivory Coast and Jamaica.
Rodriguez blamed his working-class neighborhood’s ills on thugs who prowl the streets on motorcycles and said more police patrols could help retake the city.
Many, however, believe the police are a big part of the problem. In an astounding revelation, former Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami said in 2009 that police were responsible for up to 20 percent of the country’s crimes.
“I just stay inside now,” Rodriguez said. “Outside, it’s not safe.”
All along the funeral route were unmistakable signs that this 28 million-person country is not only unsafe, but that its basic services no longer work.
Chavez’s hearse started from the military academy, which is surrounded by bare-brick slums that cling to hillsides rising almost vertically into the Caribbean sky. More Venezuelans have moved into such slums during Chavez’s government, casualties of a housing deficit that the human rights group Provea estimates at 2 million units. Official figures say the number of houses deemed “inadequate” in the country grew from 295,000 in 1999 to more than 404,000 in 2011.
The growth of such neighborhoods has contributed to other problems. Due to crumbling or nonexistent infrastructure, sewage all over the city goes mainly to one place: the once-pristine Guaire River, which runs along most of Chavez’s funeral route.
In 2005, Chavez had famously promised that Venezuelans would one day be able to swim in its waters. Trying to do that Friday, as soldiers and red-shirted Chavistas cheered on the hearse, would have been nothing less than life-threatening.
Retired truck driver Miguel Mosquera said he remembered the idyllic scene there decades ago, when the river was a perfect place to spend a sunny day.
He lives in the neighborhood of San Antonio, close to the river and within sight of the funeral route.
“The city grew too much,” the 67-year-old said. “In the ’30s and in the ’40s, people bathed in this river. … Here, when it rains, it’s chaos, you see that the river sometimes spills over when it rains.”
Jose Leal, who had stopped by a bakery near the route, said he had given up on any change under the current government, led by Chavez’s hand-picked successor Nicolas Maduro.
“It isn’t easy, brother,” Leal said as Chavez supporters headed to the river to watch the cortege pass. “It’s worrying. It creates stress, stress in the family, stress at work.”
The hearse ended its journey winding through the Chavez stronghold of the “23 de enero” slum and stopping in front of the military museum overlooking Caracas.
Chavez’s coffin will remain at the museum, while authorities decide its final resting place. Maduro had said last week that Chavez’s body would be perpetually displayed, but Information Minister Ernesto Villegas announced Friday night that the government had discarded that option.
With the nation watching, Maduro pledged that “we will construct socialism” as Chavez had attempted to do and that “we take on your cause.”
In a bakery at the route’s midpoint, Yaneth Solano said she wasn’t so sure about such grand promises anymore.
“Nothing will change Venezuela now, only God.”
Associated Press writers Christopher Toothaker, Jorge Rueda and Fabiola Sanchez contributed to this report.