Venezuelans have begun preparing for a snap election to choose a new leader after the death of Hugo Chavez.
Thousands of the late president’s supporters thronged the National Election Council on Monday as acting president Nicolas Maduro, dressed in a jacket in the colours of the Venezuelan flag, officially registered his candidacy.
“I am not Chavez, but I am his son and all of us together, the people, are Chavez,” he said.
Wearing red berets and T-shirts emblazoned with Chavez’s image, his supporters pledged loyalty to the deeply polarising socialist revolution that the former army paratrooper championed during his 14 years in power.
“We are going to elect Chavez in the body of Maduro,” said Jesus Oliviertt, a 60-year-old retiree. “We are going to continue his work.”
Henrique Capriles, a 40-year-old state governor who lost to Chavez in presidential elections in October, kept his followers off the street but warned Maduro on Sunday: “I won’t leave you an open path.
“You are going to have to defeat me with votes,” Capriles said in accepting the nomination of the main opposition coalition.
He formally registered his candidacy later in the day.
Venezuelans will vote on April 14 after a brief campaign that analysts say heavily favours Maduro, whom Chavez picked as his successor in his last public appearance before going to Cuba for cancer surgery in December.
The Venezuelan president died on March 5 and a lavish state funeral on Friday drew leaders from around Latin America and anti-US allies such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president.
International reaction continued to roll in. The US State Department announced the expulsion of two Venezuelan diplomats in a tit-for-tat response to the expulsion of two US Air Force officers by Venezuela last week.
Cuba’s Fidel Castro, meanwhile, commented for the first time on the death of his close friend and ally, calling Chavez “the best friend Cuba ever had”.
Long lines of mourners have filed by his casket for a glimpse of the dead president who has been lying in state since Wednesday at a military academy in the capital, Caracas.
Maduro has said the government will embalm Chavez’s body to be viewed “like Lenin” in a glass casket “for eternity.”
Capriles, meanwhile, has accused Maduro of lying about the president’s health to buy time to prepare for the elections.
“Now on top of it all, you are using the body of the president to stage a political campaign,” he said on Sunday.
Minutes later, Maduro went on state-run television, and, standing in front of a picture of Chavez in military uniform, accused his rival of trying to foment violence with “disgusting” accusations.
“His mask has fallen and we can see his nauseating fascist face,” he said, warning that the Chavez family was reserving the right to take “all legal action to defend the honour of president Hugo Chavez”.
“He is looking for the people of Venezuela to … go on the path of violence,” he said, urging Venezuelans to “not fall into provocations.”