Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez addresses a campaign rally in Valencia.… (Rodrigo Abd / Associated…)
CARACAS, Venezuela — In a driving rainstorm before tens of thousands of flag-waving red-shirted supporters gathered in downtown Caracas, a drenched but buoyant President Hugo Chavez insisted that the "life of Venezuela" depended on his victory in Sunday's election.
Chavez is seeking a third six-year term, on top of his first two years in office before the constitution was changed to allow longer periods in office. Nearly 19 million Venezuelans are eligible to vote in the election pitting Chavez against Henrique Capriles, the former Miranda state governor.
"Here is Chavez on his feet with you. Chavez is joy, Chavez is the future. Viva the revolution, viva socialism, viva Venezuela," exhorted the president. Diagnosed with abdominal cancer in June 2011, Chavez has undergone three surgeries and several rounds of chemotherapy.
Chavez's health has been a source of speculation, and he looked somewhat bloated but otherwise energetic and in reasonably good health.
"We have cut poverty in half over the last 10 years and, at the end of the next six years, we will reduce it to zero," Chavez said.
His social programs, called Missions, have redistributed the country's massive oil wealth among the poor with services such as free groceries, medical care and education.
Capriles has blamed Chavez for a rise in violent crime and a deeply polarized society.
The massive turnout in central Caracas sparked a protest from Democratic Unity coalition leader Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, who accused Chavez, 58, of forcing public employees across Venezuela to attend the afternoon rally or face dismissal.
Aveledo said he had obtained an internal memo from an official of the city of Vargas saying that attendance at Thursday's final campaign event was "obligatory."
Employees at the state-controlled oil company PDVSA have told The Times that their jobs depended on participation in pro-Chavez political rallies and wearing red shirts, the color closely associated with Chavez's "Bolivarian Revolution."
The two candidates closed out their campaigns Thursday, Capriles in Barquisimeto in the western state of Lara. Earlier, in a speech in Apure state, Capriles said the election is not just about putting someone new in the presidential palace.
"This election has to do with Venezuelans living free of violence, of fear of saying what they're thinking," said Capriles, 40. "It's about those who go to the Missions [government welfare programs] not having to wear a red T-shirt, or public employees not having to attend political events."
Chavez is leading in most polls, although Capriles is said to be closing the gap and, according to one poll, enjoying a 2-percentage-point lead. Capriles has also been drawing enormous crowds in the latter stages of his campaign.
Some polls suggest turnout could be as high as 75%. Both candidates will have representatives at each of the 40,000 voting places to observe the process.
Speaking to reporters this week, Capriles said, "I am David, and I will defeat Goliath with votes."
For his part, Chavez guaranteed victory to his massed supporters Thursday.
"I'm ready to work hard to make my administration more efficient the next six years. We're going to make them recognize the revolution's victory," Chavez said.
"Prepare yourself for defeat," Chavez said, aiming his remark at Capriles.
Kraul and Mogollon are special correspondents.