CARACAS: Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez played air guitar, danced in the rain and blew kisses to a red sea of followers Thursday ahead of his toughest election test.
Some of his supporters were in tears, while others shouted “I love you”Hundreds of thousands of people clad in the red colors of the ruling party turned the streets of Caracas into a carnival-like atmosphere, despite a tropical downpour on the last day of campaigning before Sunday’s presidential vote.
Some had arrived six hours before the speech, while a few climbed trees and lampposts to get a better view of the leftist leader, who is still the favorite to win but whose rival Henrique Capriles has surged in opinion polls.
Chavez made a rock star entrance, jogging onto the stage with both fists in the air as machines blew confetti and white smoke, throwing the crowd into a frenzy.
“He’s the best president we’ve ever had,” Rosa Castro, 50, said. “Chavez is here and here,” she said, pointing to her heart and a tattoo on her back of the former paratrooper giving a military salute.
After nearly 14 years in power, the 58-year-old president has developed a loyal following among Venezuela’s poor, who have benefited from social programs including health care, subsidized food and university scholarships.
“He has united everybody, even the people nobody cared about before,” Castro said.
The devotion that Chavez supporters lavish on their “comandante” regularly brings some to tears at his rallies, and Thursday was no exception.
A few women were carted off to a medical tent after fainting before his appearance. Some people threw rolled up papers with messages on the stage, others shouted, “You are my heart!” or “I love you!”
“I love him. He’s a wonderful man,” said Maria, a young black-haired woman who wiped away tears as she stood on a railing when Chavez appeared on stage.
But Capriles, a 40-year-old former Miranda state governor who says Chavez is “sick with power,” also drew hundreds of thousands of people at his own Caracas rally over the weekend, reflecting the opposition’s hope of finally defeating Chavez.
Chavez supporters fear that Capriles will end the government’s popular social programs, even though the opposition candidate, who places himself on the center-left, has vowed to keep them going.
“I heard his speeches. This is a candidate who doesn’t love the people,” said 21-year-old social worker Barbara Ascano, who wore tear-shaped earrings with an image of Chavez.
The president led the crowd into a rendition of the national anthem before unleashing his trademark attacks against Capriles, calling his rival “majunche,” a slang term that roughly translates to “worthless.”
While Chavez voiced confidence that he would win, he urged his army of supporters to wake up before dawn on election day to get voters to the polls and give him a crushing victory.
“You have to vote early, so that by noon victory is indisputable,” he said as rain soaked his dark-blue rain jacket. “Wake up at 3 a.m., drink a good coffee, chocolate, eat breakfast and everybody vote for the future ... vote for Chavez!”
When he asked the crowd, “Who is the candidate of neoliberalism?” and, “Who is the candidate of the corrupt?” they answered in unison “majunche!”
And when he followed that with, “Who is the candidate of happiness?” and, “Who is the candidate of the fatherland?” they responded, “Chavez!”
Chavez closed his speech with shouts of “Viva la revolucion” and the words of Cuban revolution hero Che Guevera, “Hasta la victoria siempre!” (“Until victory always!”)
Showing that he is still full of energy after surviving cancer, the president danced and played air guitar as the band Los Cadillacs sang an extended version of “Chavez heart of the people,” the campaign song with Caribbean beats.
Chavez then rode a caravan through the giant crowd on Bolivar Avenue for his last chance to personally appeal for votes before Sunday’s election.