CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The two men who will face off in an election to replace late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez were formally registering for the April 14 vote on Monday, though the virulent broadsides between them began days ago and are likely to only increase as campaigning gets into full swing.
Chavez’s hand-picked successor Nicolas Maduro arrived at the National Election Commission first. Thousands of supporters waving banners, holding up posters of the dead president and wearing shirts in the red color of Chavez’s ruling Socialist Party camped out in front of the office building in central Caracas Monday morning. They cheered enthusiastically as Maduro waved from a balcony.
Opposition standard-bearer Henrique Capriles was expected to sign his election papers later in the day.
Campaigning doesn’t officially start until April 2, but already the two sides are at each other’s throats.
Capriles announced his candidacy Sunday, and took the occasion to blast Chavez’s top lieutenants for trying to use the death to stoke passions and tilt the election.
“You are playing politics with the president’s body,” he said, adding that he wasn’t convinced the government had been honest about when Chavez died, and had lied to the people during his long illness by insisting he would get better. The government says Chavez succumbed to cancer on Tuesday after a nearly two-year battle. It has offered almost no clinical information.
Capriles previously called Maduro a shameless liar and referred to him condescendingly as “boy.”
Maduro appeared right after Capriles on state TV Sunday, accusing “the losing, miserable candidate” of defaming Chavez and his family. He called Capriles a “fascist” trying to provoke violence by insulting the “crystalline, pure image of Commander Chavez.”
During his speech, Maduro said Chavez’s body would remain at the military academy where it has lain in state until Thursday, and would be moved the next day to the military museum that was his headquarters during the failed 1992 coup that he rode to fame. He said the National Assembly would approve a constitutional amendment later this week to allow Chavez to be moved permanently to the National Pantheon, where the remains of early 19th century liberator Simon Bolivar are held.
By law, such a change to the constitution would have to be approved by voters.
Last week, Maduro said Chavez’s body would be embalmed and put on permanent display.
Analysts have voiced increasing concern about the angry rhetoric in a country that has become deeply divided during Chavez’s 14 years in office, though most Caracas residents it has been common.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration on Monday expelled two Venezuelan diplomats in retaliation for Venezuela’s expulsion of two American military attaches after Chavez died last week. U.S. officials say junior diplomats Orlando Jose Montanez Olivares and Victor Camacaro Mata were told to return home over the weekend and left the U.S. Sunday.
Officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
Washington wants to repair ties with Venezuela but has made little headway so far.
Beyond the diplomatic tit for tat, Venezuelan officials have accused the U.S. of being responsible for Chavez’s cancer and sought to rally anti-U.S. sentiment ahead of an April election for a new leader.
And in Cuba, revolutionary icon Fidel Castro broke his silence over the death of his protege and uber-ally, saying in an editorial published by Communist Party newspaper Granma that the island had lost its “best friend.”
Cuba receives billions of dollars in oil a year from Venezuela at cut rate prices, a huge boost to its flagging economy.