CARACAS, Venezuela – Red-shirted backers of Hugo Chavez’s chosen heir transformed downtown Caracas into a raucous festival on the final day of campaigning for the weekend presidential election, flooding the streets Thursday in the hundreds of thousands to dance, drink beer and set off ear-splitting fireworks.
Interim President Nicolas Maduro, a burly former bus driver who served as Chavez’s foreign minister and vice president, is favored to win Sunday’s vote. But a poll said his advantage had narrowed as challenger Henrique Capriles hammered away at government deficiencies in fighting crime, chronic food shortages, double-digit inflation and worsening power outages.
Capriles held his own huge rallies in the western states of Apure and Lara.
The crowds at Maduro’s rallies overflowed into surrounding streets and turned the area into a party. One group played drums as women dressed as donkeys performed a traditional Venezuelan dance known as the “buriquita.” Couples danced to romantic salsa music blaring from a truck at one street corner while blocks away screaming teenagers cheered a hip-hop group singing Chavista songs from a stage.
When Maduro finally reached the stage after a truck inched him through the sea of people, he was joined by Argentina soccer star Diego Maradona, who signed soccer balls and kicked them into the screaming crowd.
Chavez chose Maduro as his political successor in December shortly before leaving for Cuba for cancer surgery. He was never seen in public again and died March 5, five months after winning a new six-year term by a wide margin against Capriles.
Maduro has capitalized on the outpouring of grief for Chavez, who galvanized poor Venezuelans with generous social programs to provide housing, cheap food, medical care and other services. He has incessantly invoked Chavez and characterized himself as a humble servant of the Chavez legacy, revealing little of his own ideas for confronting Venezuela’s challenges.
For many Chavez supporters, it’s enough that their late leader told them to vote for Maduro.
But discontent simmers beneath the surface. Venezuela has one of the world’s highest homicide rates and strict currency controls have strangled production and brought chronic food shortages. Lack of investment and inefficient management has hurt the electrical grid, causing power outages that last hours.
Capriles told supporters Thursday that he was the best choice for reactivating the economy.