Nothing shows the extent of Hugo Chavez’s grip on power quite as clearly as his absence from his own inauguration Thursday.
Venezuela gathered foreign allies and tens of thousands of exuberant supporters to celebrate a new term for a leader too ill to return home for a real swearing-in.
In many ways, it looked like the sort of rally the president has staged dozens of times throughout his 14 years in power: The leader’s face beamed from shirts, signs and banners. Adoring followers danced and chanted in the streets to music blaring from speakers mounted on trucks. Nearly everyone wore red, the color of his Bolivarian Revolution movement, as the swelling crowd spilled from the main avenue onto side streets.
But this time, there was no Chavez on the balcony of Miraflores Palace.
It was the first time in Venezuela’s history that a president has missed his inauguration, said Elias Pino Iturrieta, a prominent historian. As for the symbolic street rally, Pino said, “perhaps it’s the first chapter of what they call Chavismo without Chavez.”
Yet in the crowd outside the presidential palace, many insisted that Chavez still was present in their hearts, testifying to his success in forging a tight bond of identity with millions of poor Venezuelans.
The crowd chanted: “We are all Chavez!” Some wore paper cutouts of the yellow, blue and red presidential sash to show they were symbolically swearing in themselves in, in Chavez’s place.
Those in the crowd raised their hands and repeated an oath after Vice President Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s designated successor: “I swear by the Bolivarian Constitution that I will defend the presidency of commander Chavez in the street, with reason, with the truth!”
“Viva Chavez!” Maduro said. He called for a round of applause for the president’s Cabinet ministers, saying they were starting a new term, and he said of Chavez, “he’s in a battle.”