'Hugo Chávez lives!' they chanted as they gazed at the casket

'He was our second Bolivar' say crowd of supporters, as they gather at former leader's coffin in Venezuela to mourn his death

They poured down the hillsides chanting he was alive, that he would always be alive, but as the cortege wound its way through the sea of red T-shirts, and the coffin appeared, a hush fell over the throng.

They gazed at the casket, absorbed its physical details, the flag draped over it, the flash of wood beneath, the glint of metal in the sunlight. Surrounded by so many people on Avenida San Martín, it looked puny, a raft buffeted on the tide.

How extraordinary, how perverse to think that Hugo Chávez was inside. That Hugo Chávez was dead.

"He was a world leader, a father," wailed Yoceida Morales, 47, a civil servant, breaking the silence. She rubbed a picture of Chávez and two of his daughters with her hair. "He will live in us for ever." Friends tried to comfort her but she wrenched free to try to touch the coffin. "He will always live for ever," she shouted. Others took up the chant. "Chávez for ever! Chávez lives!"

More than a decade ago, in April 2002, these same supporters, residents of the hillside barrios ringing Caracas, descended on the city centre to demand the president's return after he was toppled in a US-backed coup. When he returned, triumphant, they chanted: "Uh, ah, Chávez no se va." Uh, ah, Chávez won't go.

But on Tuesday he did go, succumbing to cancer, aged 58, and on Wednesday no matter how many poured down from the hills under a baking sun, walking, riding motorbikes, hitching lifts, squeezed into buses, there was no saving him. State media repeated the mantra Chávez no ha muerto, el vive en la revolución! – Chávez has not died, he lives in the revolution! – as if repetition could make it true, could deny death.

"I feel so bad. I feel a lot of pain," said Astrubal Sembrano, 47, a building site guard, holding a Venezuelan flag. "But the comandante is not dead, no, not dead. He has sowed something in us, the people, and that way he will live. He was our second liberator, our second Bolivar." Sembrano corrected himself, appalled at the slip. "He IS our second liberator. He is."

Tens of thousands accompanied the coffin on its journey from the military hospital where Chávez died to Fuerte Tiuna, a military base which will be a temporary resting place until Friday's funeral, expected to be a tumultuous event attended by world leaders.

Ever since Chávez appeared in a grainy video from Cuba in June 2011, revealing his illness, supporters had dreaded this moment. But they did not really believe it would come.

Several times in last year's election campaign, when he won another term, Chávez declared himself cured. He went to Venezuela's most holy Catholic shrine to give thanks for the miracle.

Ministers maintained the fiction as recently as last week, declaring that they had lengthy meetings with the president. No matter that a tracheotomy had stolen his voice, or that he had not been seen in public since last year, he was giving instructions, they insisted. Posters and billboards sprang up around Caracas declaring "viviremos", we will live.

But red, the vivid "rojo rojito" red that Chávez embraced for revolutionary fervour, has become the symbol of mourning. You wear itIt is worn to express grief and loss and desolation.

Those who shun it, such as those in well-heeled eastern Caracas, the opposition's heartland, have been careful to mask their emotions – ambivalence, relief, exultation? – in public. Such is the febrile mood among Chavistas you would need to be heartless or a fool, or both, to display any joy at Chávez's death. Thus eastern Caracas, its streets largely deserted, was a still, silent contrast to the swarms of honking motorbikes that accompanied the coffin up Avenida San Martín.

Families watched from balconies, agog, as wave after wave from the city's outer rings, Caricuao, Macarao, Las Adjuntas, Artigas, San Juan rolled into the city centre, a roiling psychodrama of defiance, love and loyalty for an unforgettable leader they called their own. Governments across the region declared days of national mourning.

As dusk began to drain heat from the day, the crowd accompanying the coffin had swollen to tens of thousands, jamming El Paseo de Los Próceres, a wide avenue used for military parades to honour Venezuelan heroes.

The guards flanking the hearse let mourners toss hats, flowers and other objects on to the coffin so it became an eclectic jumble, a spontaneous decision in keeping with Chávez's love of subverting protocol. Several dropped to their knees, apparently overcome, and the crowed surged around them.

Nicolás Maduro, the vice president and Chávez's designated heir, arrived and comforted some mourners, leading quasi-religious invocations of resurrection. "His spirit roams freely, filled with light, protecting our people. Our people are in the streets expressing their solidarity, their feelings."

Maduro, a former bus driver, needs to mobilise sentiment to secure his succession in an election due in less than 30 days. "The key word in this revolution is loyalty," he said.

"We have been loyal to Hugo Chávez in life, let's be loyal to Hugo Chávez and his legacy now that he has transcended."

Fidel and Raúl Castro may be atheists but they known their own revolution's fate hinges on Maduro winning and continuing sending discounted oil to Cuba.

Over his 14-year-rule, Chávez was always coy on details when he accused the US, "the empire", of sabotaging the economy, fuelling inflation and crime and mounting multiple assassination attempts. Maduro kept up the tradition by blaming nefarious forces for giving his chief cancer, implying the CIA had perhaps poisoned him.

Some in the crowd mobbing the coffin echoed that suspicion. "It's so easily done, just a drop in his coffee," said Elia Cuba, 56. "We need a scientific investigation." Her friend, Felida Mora, 63, nodded. "He sacrificed his life for the people. He's a martyr."

Everyone in the crowd seemed to have a personal affinity with Chávez, the boy from the plains who stormed the presidency and spent billions of oil revenues on poverty-alleviating social programmes. "Without him, I would never have got to London," said Hersony Canelon, 24, a cyclist who competed at last year's Olympics, a product of Venezuela's expanded sports programme. "Imagine, someone like me, from where I come from" – he indicated shacks in the distance – "having a chance to see England."

His cousin Rosmer Vera, 26, said Venezuelans could hold their heads high thanks to the comandante: "He made Venezuela respected in the world." Vera dismissed claims that Chávez ruined the economy. With crime rampant, his security camera business was thriving, he said.

Eventually the hearse, flanked by an honour guard in red berets, reached Fuerte Tiuna, a base Chávez adored when he was a tank commander. As his remains approached the chapel, where they will rest until the funeral, the crowd called for him to be buried in the national pantheon alongside his hero, Simón Bolívar.


Rory Carroll in Caracas

The GuardianTramp

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