Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez played air guitar, danced in the rain and blew kisses on Thursday to a red sea of followers, some in tears, others shouting “I love you” ahead of his toughest election test.
Hundreds of thousands of people clad in the red colours 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 arrived six hours before the speech, while a few men climbed trees and lampposts to get a better view of the leftist leader, who is still the favourite 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,” said Rosa Castro, 50. “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 programmes including free health care, subsidised 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. Thursday’s 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 programmes, even though the opposition candidate, who places himself on the centre-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.
Chavez 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 3.00am, 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 neo-liberalism?” 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 loudly, “Chavez!”
Chavez closed his speech with shouts of “Viva la revolucion” and the words of Cuban revolution hero Che Guevara, “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.