CARACAS -- Gunning for another six years in office and hoping to kill rumors about his failing health, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez officially launched his reelection bid Monday, registering his candidacy amid a throng of supporters.
As tens of thousands of red-clad backers cheered him on, Chávez, 57, took the stage in front of the National Election Council and vowed to “knock out” the opposition in the October 7 race.
The event — one of the largest rallies since Chávez announced he was battling cancer almost a year ago — was eagerly anticipated by those looking for signs of how the president’s health is holding up.
Making his entrance on the top of an open truck and wearing his trademark red beret, Chávez looked bloated but energetic as he pumped his fists and blew kisses to his followers.
After turning over his 2013-2019 governing plan to the National Election Council, Chávez launched into an impromptu dance on stage and sang traditional songs to the crowds before beginning an hours-long speech.
Thanking God and his followers’ prayers for his health, Chávez admitted it had been a trying year.
“We’ve been dealing with troubles in addition to the ones everyone knows about,” he said, accusing the opposition of engaging in a “psychological war” about his health. “But thank the Lord I am here today,” he added.
Chávez also warned the opposition against resorting to violence in their desperation to win power.
“We have made the vital strategic decision that every time there’s aggression from the imperialists and the bourgeoisie… we will respond by deepening the socialist revolution,” Chávez said.
The event came a day after Chávez’s chief rival in the race, former Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles, 39, held a rally at the same spot in an impressive show of opposition force. But Chávez pilloried him for failing to talk about his policies.
“Their plan is the imperialist project from Washington,” he said. “They are the puppets of imperialism…and now they hope to trick the people to take back the Miraflores [presidential palace]. But they’ll never get it back.”
Chávez prsented a five-point plan that he said was focused on defending the nation’s hard-won independence and epxanding his “21st Century Socialist Revolution.”
In power for 13 years, Chávez’s brand of populist nationalism has won him a loyal following among the country’s poor. Despite rampant crime, weekly corruption scandals and deep polarization, most major polls have the president leading the race.
Emilio Toro traveled 10 hours from Chávez’s home state of Barinas to attend the event. Toro, 38, lost his left leg at the kneecap eight years ago. He said the president’s social programs, called “missions,” had helped him get a free education, healthcare and a new home.
“This is the only president that has ever taken care of us poor,” he said as he navigated the crowd on crutches. “If he goes, we’ll lose all the missions. The opposition will dismantle them because they represent the president’s work.”
In fact, the opposition floated a bill to ensure the missions’ continuity. Chávez, however, raised the bar, saying the programs should be enshrined in the constitution. On Monday, Chávez said that if the opposition wins, Washington would force them to cut ties with Cuba — one of the backers of Venzuela’s free healthcare program.