CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuela's top presidential challenger, Manuel Rosales, led a 26-kilometer (16-mile) march through the capital on Saturday, drawing tens of thousands into the streets to endorse his candidacy ahead of the Dec. 3 election.
Opponents of President Hugo Chavez joined the march from various points across the city, waving banners reading "Go For It, With Rosales!" Many of the demonstrators danced to hip-hop music booming from loudspeakers mounted on flatbed trucks, others chanted anti-Chavez slogans or launched fireworks.
"Rosales represents all of those Venezuelans fed up with the government's failures. We want a change, and I'm sure that's what we are going have in December," said Elena Mijares 45-year-old housewife.
Still, a recent survey by Zogby International showed Chavez with a 59 percent to 24 percent lead over Rosales. The face-to-face survey of 800 registered voters was conducted between Oct. 1 and Oct. 16 and had a 3.5 percent margin of error.
More than 1,000 police were deployed along the march route to prevent clashes between Rosales supporters and "Chavistas" who gathered on street corners, shouting "Viva Chavez!" and "Oh, No! Chavez Won't Go!" as marchers passed.
There were several scuffles between rivals, but no reports of major disturbances.
Rosales, governor of oil-rich, western Zulia state, promised to bring prosperity to this poverty-stricken South American country while railing against leftist Chavez for repeatedly telling his political allies that being rich is bad.
"He says that people have to be poor their entire lives. He says, 'Why have a nice house and a nice car?' I say, yes, one can have a nice house and a nice car," Rosales told reporters. "We are going to change this government's outdated ideology for work and progress."
Rosales urged public employees to vote, saying they should not believe rumors that electronic voting machines could violate the secrecy of their vote.
"They can be assured that nobody is ever going to know for whom they voted," he said.
A close ally of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, Chavez has said he wants to continue governing Venezuela until 2021 — or longer. He has asked the National Assembly, packed with his political allies, to consider changing Venezuela's Constitution next year to allow indefinite re-election. It now allows two consecutive presidential terms.
Chavez has promised to wipe out poverty with his socialist policies and increased state control over the economy. Rosales argues private enterprise should play a broader role in the economy, and warns that Chavez is steering the world's fifth-largest oil exporter toward Cuba-style communism.