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Dramatic exit: Heads of state gather for Hugo Chavez's funeral

Leaders from just about every country in Latin America, as well as Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and a small delegation from the U.S., turned out for the funeral of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. NBC's Mark Potter reports.

More than two dozen world leaders bid farewell Friday to the late Hugo Chavez at a lengthy, emotional funeral where the Rev. Jesse Jackson portrayed the Venezuelan president as a hero of the poor, while pushing for the nation’s rapprochement with the United States.

"How do we measure a great leader? By how he treats the least of these," Jackson said in his eulogy, standing before Chavez’s flag-draped coffin at the military academy in Caracas. "Hugo fed the hungry. He lifted the poor. He raised their hopes. He helped them realize their dreams."

He called for the leaders of the United States and Venezuela to meet and resolve tensions that deepened during the 14-year tenure of Chavez who regularly ranted against "imperialist" America.

"We pray God today that you will heal the breach between the U.S. and Venezuela," Jackson said. "While it may be politically difficult, it's the morally right thing to do."

Jackson was joined at the service by row after row of dark-suited heads of state – including Cuban President Raul Castro and Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Movie star Sean Penn appeared — a testament to the socialist showman’s Hollywood appeal.

Miraflores via Reuters

The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. talks with actor Sean Penn during the funeral for Venezuela's late President Hugo Chavez.

Chavez, 58, died Tuesday after a nearly two-year battle with a mystery cancer that had him shuttling between Cuba and Venezuela for treatment and prevented him from being sworn in for a fourth term.

His send-off has been rich in pageantry. It started with a six-mile funeral procession through mobbed streets Wednesday, after which his body was placed in the military academy, where it will remain for a week before it’s put on permanent display at a museum.

At the funeral, four Presidential Guard soldiers in red dress uniforms festooned with gold braid flanked his casket near a huge photo of the ex-paratrooper in his trademark green uniform and red beret.

Fittingly for a man who sang and danced on his weekly TV show, Chavez’s funeral was full of music, including folk tunes from a congressman in a cowboy hat.

Chavez’s hand-picked successor, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, placed a golden sword on the casket — a symbol of Latin American revolutionary Simon Bolivar, who inspired the late president’s philosophy and politics.

Maduro was slated to be sworn in as interim president Friday, ahead of an election to be held within 30 days — news that immediately sparked controversy.

The opposition said it would boycott the swearing-in, insisting the speaker of the National Assembly — and not Maduro, who will be running for president — should fill the temporary opening.

Jackson told the crowd Venezuelans could be thankful for an “orderly transition.”

"With Maduro, grant him wisdom and support as he keeps hopes and dreams alive, as he picks up the baton and makes a great nation greater,” he said in his sermon.

Maduro, who last week accused the United States of causing Chavez’s illness, had a message for Washington: "We love all the people of our America, but we want relations of respect, of cooperation, of true peace.”

Maduro did most of the speaking at the service, his thunderous voice cracking at times.

Handout / Reuters

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad pays tribute to late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, during the funeral service at the Military Academy in Caracas.

"Here you are commander with your men, standing, all your men and women, loyal as we swore before you, loyal until beyond death," he shouted. "We have smashed the curse of betrayal of the country and we will smash the curse of defeat and regression."

The United States was represented at the funeral by two Democratic politicians — Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., and former Massachusetts Congressman William Delahunt.

"My deepest sympathies go out to the family of President Chavez and the people of Venezuela,” Meeks said in a statement.

"Venezuela is an important nation to the Western Hemisphere. I remain committed to building the relationship between our nations. As always, I stand in continued support of the Venezuelan people especially at this time of mourning."

After the funeral, Ahmadinejad spoke on state-run television and said he had come to pay tribute to a man of the people who would be remembered as a "historic and global figure."

"He was able to raise the profile of and put Venezuela on the global stage," the Iranian leader said.

In the wealthier neighborhoods of Caracas there were few tears for Chavez, who was disliked by some for his economic policies and polarizing politics.

 "This is a big joke," Eduardo Perez, a 44-year-old lawyer, told the Associated Press, referring to the extended funeral. "I feel ridiculous as a Venezuelan."

The Associated Press contributed to this report


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Francisco Gomez / Spanish Royal / EPA

Supporters of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez mourn his death and gather for his funeral.

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