CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — A sea of sobbing, heartbroken humanity jammed Venezuela's main military academy on Thursday for one final glimpse at Hugo Chavez, some waiting 10 hours under the twinkling stars and the searing Caribbean sun to file past his coffin.
But even as funeral plans were being made, a country exhausted from two days of round-the-clock mourning began to look toward the future, with some worrying openly whether the nation's anointed leaders are up to the task. The government has still not said when elections will be held, though the constitution mandates they be called within 30 days.
"People are beginning to get back to their lives. One must keep working," said 40-year-old Caracas resident Laura Guerra, a Chavez supporter who said she was not yet sold on Vice President Nicolas Maduro, the acting head of state and designated ruling party candidate. "I don't think he will be the same. I don't think he has the same strength that the 'comandante' had."
Several Latin American leaders, including Cuban President Raul Castro, have already arrived for Chavez's state funeral on Friday, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was also on his way. Rep. Gregory Meeks, a New York Democrat, and former Rep. William Delahunt, a Democrat from Massachusetts, will represent the United States, which Chavez often portrayed as a great global evil even as he sent the country billions of dollars in oil each year.
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said Thursday that 54 countries were sending delegations, including 33 national leaders.
It was still unclear Thursday afternoon where Chavez will be buried. National Assembly speaker Diosdado Cabello said via Twitter late Wednesday that the president should be laid to rest at the National Pantheon, alongside the remains of 19th century independence hero Simon Bolivar. But Rafael Riera, secretary general of an opposition party in Chavez's native Barinas state, told The Associated Press on Thursday that the late leader's family had requested he be buried in the state, next to his grandmother.
A government spokesman, Oscar Lloreda, said late Thursday that no decision on the burial site had been made, and that the government was still working out details for Friday's funeral, including its location.
At the military academy, Chavez lay in a glass-covered coffin wearing the olive-green military uniform and red beret of his paratrooper days and looking gaunt and pale, his lips pressed together. In a nod to the insecurity that plagues this country, mourners had to submit to a pat down, pass through a metal detector and remove the batteries from their mobile phones before they entered.
As they reached the coffin, many placed a hand on their heart or stiffly saluted. Some held up children so they could see Chavez's face.
"I waited 10 hours to see him, but I am very happy, proud to have seen my comandante," said 46-year-old Yudeth Hurtado, sobbing. "He is planted in our heart."
Government leaders had been largely incommunicado Wednesday as they marched in a seven-hour procession that brought Chavez's body from a military hospital to the academy. They finally emerged before the cameras Thursday but offered no answers.
Asked when an election would be held, Jaua said only that the constitution would be followed. He continued to refer to Maduro as "vice president," though he also said the rest of the government was united in helping him lead the country.
The foreign minister also struck the defiant, us-against-the-world tone the government has projected, which some critics fear could incite passions in a country that remains on edge.
"They couldn't defeat him electorally, they couldn't assassinate him, they couldn't beat him militarily," Jaua declared. "Chavez died as president ... Chavez died the leader of his people."
Just hours before the 58-year-old president's death on Tuesday, Maduro expelled two U.S. diplomats and lashed out at opponents at home and abroad. He implied that the cancer that ultimately killed Chavez was somehow injected into him by his enemies, a charge echoed by Ahmadinejad.
While Maduro is the clear favorite over likely opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, the nation is polarized between Chavez supporters and critics who hold him responsible for soaring inflation, a growing national debt and a jump in violent crime.
Opponents have also questioned the government's allegiance to the rule of law, arguing that Maduro is not entitled to become interim president under the 1999 constitution. They have also criticized the defense minister, Adm. Diego Molero, for pledging support for Maduro's candidacy despite a ban on the military taking political sides.
Ana Teresa Sifontes, a 71-year-old housewife and opposition sympathizer, said Chavez did some good things for the nation's poor. But she said he had mismanaged the economy and showed more interest in regional grandstanding than governing.
She said she hoped his death would bring change.
"Why do we have to pay for Cuba?" she asked, referring to the billions in Venezuelan oil Chavez sent to Havana each year in return for Cuban doctors and other experts. "Why do we need them here?"
Venezuelan officials have yet to say what type of cancer he suffered from, but details were emerging of the former paratrooper's final hours.
The head of Venezuela's presidential guard, Gen. Jose Ornella, told the AP 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 Tuesday.
In Washington, State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. hoped the upcoming vote would be held on a level playing field, and lamented the expulsion of the American officials.
"We are obviously disappointed by these false accusations levied against our embassy officials," Nuland said. "This is part of a tired playbook of alleging foreign interference as a political football in internal Venezuelan politics."
Associated Press writers Eduardo Castillo, Fabiola Sanchez, Frank Bajak and Christopher Toothaker in Caracas contributed to this report.
Paul Haven on Twitter: www.twitter.com/paulhaven