Published by USA Today //pdf1//
Amid air horns, incessant screaming and blasting music, Carmen Carillo, 48, stands crying, holding her young daughter and staring at the passing motorcade.
"He's done so many good things," she said, looking toward President Hugo Chávez as his car passes by. "I suffered with problems with my sight, and thanks to Chávez and God I had an operation and now I can see."
Tens of thousands of people formed a sea of red that flooded into the small town of Mariara to see Chávez and hear his bid for re-election. But what has been a routine victory for the socialist Chavistas for 13 years is in doubt because of a broken economy and a viable opponent in centrist state governor Henrique Capriles Radonski.
This nation of 29 million people is suffering from high unemployment, food shortages and rising crime despite having the largest oil reserves in the world. Capriles blames Chávez, whose rewarding of friends and punishing political enemies has hobbled the oil industry and foreign investment.
Capriles, who is calling for a return to free-market economics backed by strong welfare policies, lashed out at Chávez at a campaign stop Saturday.
"I'm telling you clearly, Chávez, whatever you do, your time is over, brother," he said. "Venezuela is waking up."
But Chávez's many supporters have not abandoned him. At the opening of his campaign for a six-year term, thousands of people walked, caught buses or hitched rides for the 10-mile route to the central city of Maracay, where they watched their "Comandante" speak.
"The Bolivarian hurricane has begun," Chávez bellowed, referring to Latin-American independence hero Simón Bolívar, whose memory has been the plank of Chávez's socialist revolution.
Capriles opened his campaign in the depths of the jungle at Santa Elena, on the border with Brazil.
"Over there is Brazil," Capriles said. "Its government understood how to work. Brazil has taken off. Now it's Venezuela's turn."
Chávez, 57, gained the presidency in 1999 after an earlier failed coup landed him in prison. While in power he has gained support from impoverished rural areas where he has built government housing and health clinics. He has also packed state industries with cronies and repressed the media and used a majority in the congress to pass laws strengthening his power.
Abroad, he has attempted to destabilize other regimes in South America, clashing with the United States and other regional democracies while backing dictators such as Fidel Castro in Cuba, where he has been flying for advice and treatments for cancer.
At home, one of the biggest voter gripes is insecurity. One weekend in June saw 68 homicides in the capital of Caracas, making the city one of the murder capitals of the world. Many top Colombian drug lords are suspected of living in Venezuela.
"We need a change of government," said José Granadas, 51, in Caracas, adding that he regrets having voted for Chávez. "Sadly, the country's gone backwards."
According to pollster Luis Vicente León, about 30% of the electorate for the Oct. 7 election are undecided. This is a change from the past, he says, when most people polled were either very much for or very much against Chávez.
"I haven't got time for politics. I doubt anything will change," said Freddy Kasove, 43, in a Caracas shopping mall.
Chávez even acknowledged the "undecided" and "confused" section of the electorate in his campaign speech, saying he would win them over.
While some independent polling firms put the race within a 4-point margin, Chávez's campaign chief Jorge Rodríguez says recent polls by the Caracas-based firm Datanálisis place Chávez 17 points ahead of Capriles.
"Every day the gap favors Chávez," Rodríguez said.
Even in the event of a Chávez loss, Capriles will have to deal with a congress packed with Chávez loyalists including National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, a military comrade of Chávez's who took part in the failed 1992 military coup.
Another issue will be Venezuelan oil, the price of which has fallen about 20% in the past two and a half months because of a worldwide economic slump. This OPEC nation depends on oil for 90% of its exports.
Chávez said this past weekend that he is confident of victory, mocking Capriles as a "loser." He says the only way he can be denied victory is if outside conspirators, such as Europe and the United States, try to steal his win with lies that he is a dictator.
"They say I am trampling on things, that I am violating laws. It is absurd … but what is behind it all is not absurd: a conspiracy to try to deny the will of the people," Chávez said at a military promotion ceremony.