Peter Wilson, Special for USA TODAY
CARACAS, Venezuela -- Hundreds of thousands of mourners, including several world leaders, converged on a military academy in the center of Venezuela's capital to honor fallen President Hugo Chavez in a state funeral on Friday.
Government officials said that up to 2 million people could attend the ceremony. Delegations from 55 countries are present, including a low-level U.S. delegation. World leaders, including Cuban President Raul Castro and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, are also attending, under heavy security.
Many mourners were clutching photos of Chavez or wearing red T-shirts emblazoned with his image. Others cried openly. Some traveled throughout the night from the country's farflung states to honor their Comandante. To accommodate the crowds, six big screen televisions were placed outside the academy to broadcast the ceremony.
During the ceremony, Venezuelan cabinet members presented an exact replic of the sword of the country's founding father, Simon Bolivar, to Chavez, placing it on his casket.
"Chavez may be dead but the revolution continues," said Alexander Ramos, a 33-year-old lawyer, who was waiting in line. "We are here today for him, and for Vice President (Nicolas) Maduro as well. The revolution must continue!"
Chavez, 58, died Tuesday after a two-year battle with cancer. The government has never said what kind of cancer he had, and it warned the country's press on Thursday not to engage in speculation about the late president's illness.
Chavez was elected president in 1998, and was re-elected three times. In his 14 years as president, he survived a coup d'etat in 2002, a nationwide strike in 2003 and a recall vote in 2004. A flamboyant opponent of U.S. imperialism and capitalism, Chavez also transformed Venezuela's political process by redistributing the country's oil wealth to the poor.
Venezuela has the world's largest oil reserves.
Maduro said Thursday that Chavez's remains will be specially embalmed and laid to rest in a glass case so they can be kept on view "eternally" to inspire future generations.
"The remains will be placed in a crystal case so the people can see him forever," Maduro said. "This will be just like what they did for Lenin, Mao and Ho Chi Minh."
The decision to embalm Chavez to allow his eternal viewing is likely a political decision as Maduro positions himself for the upcoming presidential campaign, said analysts.
"They're going to make every effort to make Chavez a mythical figure, greater-than-life. They are counting on that to ease the transition to Maduro," said Risa Grais-Targow, an analyst with Eurasia Group.
Venezuela's state television has constantly shown film footage of Chavez who is always shown kissing the poor and especially children as the "father of the country." Ironically, Chavez ordered his visage not to be used two years ago in government propaganda to deflect charges that he was fanning a personality cult.
The president's initial resting place will be an army post in the mountain overlooking Caracas, where Chavez launched his first coup in 1992, Maduro said. The command post is being converted into a Museum of the Revolution.
Many of Chavez's supporters have called for him to be buried in the country's Pantheon, which houses the remains of many former presidents, including the country's founding father, Simon Bolivar.
Such a move, however, would be opposed by those Venezuelans who criticized Chavez as a dictator. One other possibility is to place Chavez's remains in a $60 million mausoleum that was built to hold Bolivar's remains.
The massive structure has yet to be dedicated. Before he died, many Venezuelans claimed that the mausoleum would hold Chavez's remains, a charge the government constantly debunked.
To accommodate all of those wanting to see him, public calling hours will be extended for seven days, Maduro also said.
Most businesses and banks were closed for the day. Maduro's likely opponent in the upcoming presidential election, Miranda State Governor Henrique Capriles Radonski decreed a public holiday throughout his state.
Under Venezuela's constitution, Maduro has to schedule fresh elections within 30 days. El Universal reported that the vote will likely be held in May.