VENEZUELA: Venezuelans packed the streets of Caracas and other cities on Thursday to hear President Hugo Chavez and opposition rival Henrique Capriles make their final pitches ahead of weekend elections.
In the final mass gathering of his campaign, Chavez, 58, warned the crowd that his defeat would bring an end to his popular social programs and leave the oil-rich nation of 30 million in the hands of oligarchs.
“We cannot allow them to demolish Venezuela again,” he said as he stood in the driving rain.
“The life of this nation is at stake. The life of the people is in play.”
The rally drew hundreds of thousands of followers from across the country, and was a powerful demonstration of the government’s ability to mobilise the masses. Busses and trucks packed with red-clad supporters began arriving early on Thursday, and by the afternoon Chavistas had packed seven of Caracas’ main arteries.
The administration is counting on the same political machinery to get out the vote on Sunday in what some are expecting to be one of the closest races of Chavez’s almost 14-year tenure.
While most polls give Chavez the lead, a few show him in a dead heat with former Miranda governor Capriles.
With a moratorium on campaigning taking effect, Capriles spent the day in the western state of Apure, where he vowed to help the poor and bridge the ideological divide.
“Even though the government says it has the power, next Sunday the people will decide who’s president,” he said.
Capriles held his own rally in Caracas on Sunday and student supporters marched down a central boulevard on Wednesday to take the iconic Venezuela Plaza.
But Thursday belonged to Chavez, as he rode a platform truck to the presidential palace, blowing kisses and pumping his fists amid a surging crowd.
Chavez has undergone at least three surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation in the last 16 months to treat an undisclosed form of cancer that he claims to have beaten.
After sticking close to Caracas for most of the campaign, he spent the last few weeks in a flurry of activity, drawing massive crowds to his national rallies.
On Thursday, Chavez looked healthy and energetic, playing air guitar at the front of the stage and hopping around in the rain.
Neidy Camacho travelled with about 30 other people for five hours from Lara state to be at the event.
“We’re going to force Capriles and his people to recognise defeat,” said Camacho, who is a land rights activist.
“Chavez is the only president who’s really stood up for poor people.”