Chavez upstages opposition with massive rally
Venezuelan president stages show of strength at start of re-election campaign.
CARACAS, Venezuela, Wednesday June 13, 2012 – On Sunday it was Henrique Capriles’ turn to shine, when the 39-year-old opposition candidate put on a show of youthful vigour by leading a 10 km march with hundreds of thousands of supporters through the streets of Caracas to register his candidacy.
But the following day, President Hugo Chavez outshone his younger rival, leading his biggest rally since he was diagnosed with cancer last year, in a show of strength as he headed into the re-election campaign to extend his 13 years of socialist rule.
The president stood on top of a truck as it drove through massive crowds of supporters who cheered and threw roses and confetti as he made a dramatic re-entry into the public eye after months of keeping a low profile during treatment for his illness.
"I give this to you with a promise to fight, to battle, and of course to win," the 57-year-old Chavez said as he handed electoral officials his plan for government.
He had appeared to walk with some difficulty as he entered the building, hand-in-hand with two of his daughters, prompting a scathing response from Capriles on Twitter: "This candidate isn't walking, he is out of gasoline! ... A better future of progress is coming!"
Outside, giant inflatable Chavez dolls waved their arms above the crowd as the president's fans danced to music blaring from speakers. Hundreds of buses that ferried his followers to the capital stood parked in side streets.
"Look at this sea of people, look at the happiness," said Esther Martinez, a 66-year-old retiree dancing in a city square. "For every person that came out yesterday, we've brought out 10, 20, 30 more. And that's going to be reflected in the election."
"Chavez is the best thing this country and the world have ever had. He is kind and humane," said Aracelis Aguilera, a 55-year-old secretary.
Any turn for the worse in Chavez's health could nevertheless mean the end for his movement. That would be a blow to global leftist leaders who see him as an inspiration, but a boon to investors seeking free market reforms in Venezuela and oil companies keen on tapping the world's biggest crude reserves.
His allies have kept his image in the public eye for months with rallies from which he was notably absent or appeared only via Twitter messages that cabinet ministers read out live.
Chavez has at times almost seemed to revel in the rumours of his imminent demise, which range from him being confined to a wheelchair to reports that he has only two months to live.
Last year he said he underwent two operations to remove a baseball-sized tumour, and this year had a third operation mere months after having declared himself "cancer free." His true condition is a closely guarded state secret.
Most of the country's main pollsters show Chavez holding a double-digit lead over Capriles. But Venezuela's public opinion is known to shift dramatically, as it did when Chavez came from behind in 1998 to win his first election.