CARACAS, Venezuela – More than 100,000 backers of Henrique Capriles, the most serious challenger ever of the deceased Hugo Chávez, rallied in the streets of Caracas a week before the country's first election in the post-Chávez era.
Most of the roughly 100,000 people who converged in the city center on a hot, sunny Sunday afternoon tried to shrug off forecasts of victory for Nicolás Maduro, who was sworn in as acting president after Chávez died March 5 following a long battle with cancer.
"He's capable of offering opportunities to get us out of this disaster."
- Maria De Llano said of Capriles
Capriles said the big turnout in the capital was evidence that he'd win at the ballot box next Sunday.
"Today the streets of Caracas were filled with happiness, today the streets of Caracas were filled with hope, today the streets of Caracas confirm what's going to happen," Capriles said.
Chávez had defeated Capriles in October, but by the slimmest margin of his 14-year tenure as president.
Maduro, who rose from bus driver and union organizer to foreign minister under Chávez, is expected to benefit from an emotional outpouring of solidarity among Chavistas who have benefited from the generous social welfare state he created under the socialist banner.
But many critics contend that Maduro has been saddled with a fiscal hangover due to heavy Chávez spending ahead of October's vote.
Jesus Barroso, a 52-year-old retiree, said he believes Maduro will win handily next Sunday. But he predicted Maduro would not be able complete the six-year term because economic and social woes would prompt Venezuelans to remove him through a recall.
"I don't think he'll last very long in the presidency," Barroso said.
Supporters of Capriles chanted anti-government slogans and waved red, yellow and blue Venezuelan flags as they converged on a main avenue in downtown Caracas, where the 40-year-old governor of central Miranda state, was scheduled to speak.
Upbeat demonstrators danced to music sound trucks, which blasted "Fresh Lie," a newly composed song by Puerto Rican salsa musician Willie Colon that pokes fun at Maduro.
Capriles has repeatedly accused Maduro of failing to resolve pressing problems including frequent power outages, crumbling infrastructure, shortages of basic foods and double-digit inflation, and supporters say Capriles can do better.
"He's capable of offering opportunities to get us out of this disaster," said Maria De Llano said of Capriles, noting that she has difficulty finding some medicines and foods such as coffee, sugar and chicken due to sporadic shortages.
Meanwhile, Maduro invoked Chávez during a rally in the southern state of Apure, telling his backers that "El Comandante" is watching over them from Heaven.
"He's protecting us," said Maduro, speaking as if Chávez were omnipresent.
Indeed, images of Chávez seem to be everywhere in Venezuela. His smiling face is posted on billboard along highways. State-run television channels regularly broadcast footage of his speeches.
And Maduro's campaign organizers set up loudspeakers that play sound bites of Chávez's voice at rallies.
A recent poll by the independent polling firm Datanalisis showed Capriles trailed Maduro 49 percent to 35 percent in a sampling of 800 voters from March 11-13. The poll, with 16 percent of respondents undecided, had a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points.
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.