By E. EDUARDO CASTILLO, Associated Press
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — In the tree-lined eastern hills of Caracas, you would never know an elaborate state funeral was in progress across town for the most popular president in Venezuela's recent history.
At a park in the La Floresta district Friday, spandex-clad men and women did group aerobics and jogged, while others sat lounging on benches. No one had any intention of paying their respects to "El Comandante."
Hugo Chavez polarized Venezuela between the mostly lower classes who followed him almost blindly during his 14 years in power and an opposition that despised what they said was his autocratic bearing, intolerance for dissent and mismanagement of the economy.
"This is a big joke," Eduardo Perez, a 44-year-old lawyer, said of the funereal pomp across town. "I feel ridiculous as a Venezuelan."
"We can't be so radical as to say he didn't accomplish anything, but when you consider matters in macro terms you grasp that we are in bad shape," Perez said as he tinkered with the engine of his Ford Explorer.
In La Castellana, another wealthy neighborhood of the capital, Oscar Carreno spent Friday morning walking his schnauzer, with no plans to watch the funeral on TV. The 23-year-old economist said he saw Chavez, a former paratrooper, as a divisive figure who had torn the country asunder politically.
"His style was to cast aspersions on former governments," said Carreno. "That's what he emphasized."
Carreno acknowledged Chavez was a master politician and survivor, and said he hoped the president's death would be an opening for new faces and a new direction.
Back in La Floresta, Cesar Alvarez sat on a bench reading the newspaper.
The 62-year-old elevator company executive said he has hopes for a better future now that Chavez is gone.
"The man did a lot of damage, because he always tried to win over the masses and indeed this is a very populist government that gives things away to the people, passing out money without any work being done."
On Alvarez's list of complaints about Chavez: "He practically kept Cuba afloat. And Bolivia — you see (President) Evo Morales there, crying like a baby because he got money. And Nicaragua, let's not even go there."
Cuba and Nicaragua have both benefited from cut-rate Venezuelan oil while Chavez also gave significant aid to Bolivia.
Morales spent all of Wednesday, the day after Chavez's death was announced, walking beside his friend's casket through Caracas' streets.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro announced Thursday that Chavez would be embalmed, his body placed on permanent display.
Alvarez said Maduro and the others Chavez put in charge to carry out his work need to keep the late leader in the public's mind to "capitalize on his image ... because each and every one of them, on merits, isn't worth a thing."
Maduro, Chavez's anointed successor, was to be sworn in later Friday as acting president in a ceremony opposition lawmakers promised to boycott. They argue that the constitution says the speaker of the National Assembly should assume the presidency temporarily while a presidential election is called.
The expected opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, won 45 percent of the votes in the Oct. 7 presidential election.
Chavez won, of course. With 56 percent.
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