Caracas: Hugo Chavez has been carried back to the military academy where he started his Army career, his flag-draped coffin lying in state in the echoing halls until Friday`s funeral.
As a band played the hymn from his first battalion, a long ribbon of tearful mourners numbering in the hundreds of thousands bid farewell to the larger-than-life leader after a procession carried his casket through Caracas.
With the entire government, including anointed successor Nicolas Maduro, caught up in the seven-hour procession, there were few answers to the most pressing question facing the country - the timing of a Presidential Election that must be called within a month.
Generations of Venezuelans, many dressed in the red of Chavez`s socialist party, filled the capital`s streets to remember the man who dominated their country for 14 years before succumbing to cancer on Tuesday afternoon.
Chavez`s coffin made its way through the crowds atop an open hearse on an eight-kilometre journey that wound through the city`s north and southeast, into many of the poorer neighbourhoods where Chavez drew his political strength.
At the academy, Chavez`s family and close advisers, as well as the Presidents of Argentina, Bolivia and Uruguay, attended a funeral Mass around the President`s glass-topped casket. The public then began filing past to peer at their longtime President, many of them coming closer to him than they had ever been while he was alive. Some placed their hand over their heart, others saluting or raising a fist in solidarity. The viewing lasted far into the night.
The head of Venezuela`s presidential guard, General Jose Ornella, told a news agency late Wednesday that Chavez died of a massive heart attack after great suffering.
"He couldn`t speak but he said it with his lips ... `I don`t want to die. Please don`t let me die,` because he loved his country, he sacrificed himself for his country," said Ornella, who said he was with the socialist President at the moment of his death on Tuesday.
Military officers and Cabinet members ringed the President`s coffin, stone-faced. Other mourners pumped their fists and held aloft images of the late President, amid countless yellow, blue and red Venezuelan flags.
The charter clearly states that the speaker of the National Assembly, in this case Diosdado Cabello, should become interim president if a head of state is forced to leave office within three years of his election. Chavez was re-elected only in October.
But Chavez anointed Maduro for that role, and the Vice President has assumed the mantle even as the government announced he would represent the ruling socialist party in the presidential vote.
Some took to Twitter to denounce the move, citing Article 233 of the Constitution, which establishes Cabello as the rightful president.
The military also appears to be showing firm support for Maduro, despite a constitutional mandate that it play no role in politics. In a late-night tweet, Venezuelan state television said Defence Minister Admiral Diego Molero had pledged military support for Maduro`s candidacy against likely opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, raising concern among critics about the fairness of the vote.
(With Agency inputs)