The day was scheduled for an inaugural celebration. It could easily have become an occasion for mourning, possibly even a day of conflict. Instead there was a peaceful rally for a missing president, Hugo Chávez, and a giant question mark over what happens next.
With flags, banners, klaxons and vuvuzelas, more than 100,000 Chávez supporters thronged in the streets outside Venezuela’s presidential palace, Miraflores, and filled the air with noise, color and emotion as if to make up for the gap left by the man who has dominated this space for the past 14 years.
Wearing the emblematic red shirts of the ruling party and clutching posters printed with their leader’s image and the slogan “We are all Chávez!” the crowd made their way to the area below the same balcony where three months ago they celebrated with their president after his fourth election victory.
This time, however, Chávez was 1,300 miles away in a Cuban hospital bed. He has been missing from public life for a month, since he underwent emergency cancer surgery. His current condition is uncertain.
The government says he is suffering from a severe respiratory infection; it has not said whether he is conscious. One thing is certain: the president was too ill to attend his swearing-in ceremony.
“We are here to be sworn into office in place of our president who wasn’t able to attend. We will wait for him as long as it is necessary,” said Mariela Rodriguez, a teacher. “God will bring him back to us healed.”
The organizers said they wanted a mood that was sad but strong. Both elements were evident, but so was uncertainty. “People are worried and praying to God for his prompt return, but it’s hard because we don’t know what is happening,” said Estefania D’Stefano, who owns a shop close to Miraflores.
Read more: The Guardian