Venezuelans have started filing past the open casket of late President Hugo Chavez as he lies in state after throngs of weeping loyalists gave the former leader a rousing farewell on the streets.
Hundreds of thousands waved flags and chanted “Chavez lives” when his hearse crawled across the capital in a seven-hour trip from the hospital where he died to the academy he once called his second home.
The former paratrooper’s hand-picked successor, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, led the procession, wearing a sombre expression and the colours of the national flag, in what was in effect his debut in an election campaign.
Once at the academy, soldiers removed flowers and other mementos thrown onto the wooden casket by the crowd and Chavez’s grieving mother Elena covered her face with a white handkerchief during a Roman Catholic ceremony.
The coffin was then placed half-opened in the hall, surrounded by his three daughters, son Huguito and a granddaughter.
The presidents of Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia, close Chavez allies, and a crowd of officials applauded while many chanted: “Chavez lives, the struggle goes on!”
The doors were then opened for everyday Venezuelans, who stood in a huge line to pay their respects, some making the sign of the cross, others in uniform giving the military salute, as a four-man honour guard stood stiffly.
“His face was beautiful. We will remember him the way he was, the way he lived,” Yelitze Santaella, governor of Monagas state, told international media after seeing the body, which was not shown directly in state-run television coverage.
Chavez’s death after a near two-year struggle with cancer was a blow to his supporters and to the alliance of left-wing Latin American powers, and it has plunged his OPEC member nation into uncertainty.
A new election is due to be called within what are sure to be 30 tense days, with Mr Maduro, who took over as interim president, likely to face off opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chavez in the October election.
The 58-year-old leader died on Tuesday, weakened by a respiratory infection after a fourth round of cancer surgery. He had returned to Caracas on February 18 after two months of treatment in Cuba.
The death brought thousands of citizens to public squares across the country, weeping and celebrating the life of a man whose oil-funded socialist revolution delighted the poor and infuriated the wealthy.