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.
Despite Capriles’ work as governor to assist the poor, he hasn’t been able to break through to the working class, said Oscar Schemel of the Hinterlaces polling firm.
“He’s never been able to project his vision for how he’s going to deal with inequality and how he’s going to guarantee social inclusion,” Schemel said. “One of the things that favors Chávez is that he has a vision, even if it’s just symbolic. But he’s seen as a redeemer by the poor just as much a political leader.”
For the first time since sweeping into office in 1998, Chávez is facing a unified opposition. In February, a coalition of opposition parties held a joint primary in hopes of building a common front against Chávez.
Capriles, who prides himself on his work ethic and reaching across the political divide, won the vote with almost 1 million votes.
But the last few weeks have underscored the power of the presidency, as different branches of government have worked in concert to stymie the opposition.
Last week, the Supreme Electoral Council decreed that the more than 20,000 Venezuelans registered at the now-closed Miami consulate would have to cast their vote in New Orleans, a move that’s likely to dent opposition turnout.
Also last week, the courts effectively blocked two smaller anti-Chávez parties, the PPT and Podemos, from throwing their support behind Capriles by calling their leadership into question.
“The supreme court was used as a tool to create this political aberration,” said Simón Calzadilla, the secretary general of the Fatherland for All party, or PPT. “This government has taken off its mask because it’s getting desperate.”
But the darkest cloud over Chávez’s candidacy remains his health.
Battling an undisclosed form of cancer since at least June 2011, Chávez has been making frequent trips to Cuba for treatment. Despite a relapse in February, the president has reassured the nation that he will be fit for office. On Saturday, he said CT Scans and an MRI had shown that he’s in remission.
But the government’s unwillingness to give details about his condition — it’s never said what kind of cancer it is or what organs might be affected — has only fueled speculation.
Last month, U.S. journalist Dan Rather caused a minor stir here, when he cited an anonymous source to report that Chávez has metastic rhabdomyosarcoma — an aggressive cancer of the connective tissue — and is unlikely to survive to the election. The government has denied those claims, but until last week, it wasn’t clear if Chávez would register his candidacy in person.
On Monday, Chávez blasted the rumor mill that has reported him to be wheelchair bound, dying in Cuba and with just days left to live.
“I don’t know how many of these necrophilia-like diagnoses have been passed around this year,” he said.
Chávez supporters seem unfazed by the prospect of an ailing candidate.
“His health problems have made me love him even more,” said Jenifer Boscan, who was taking a break in the shade after traveling 11 hours from Zulia state to be at the event.
“The fact that he’s here today shows he’s okay.”
But even if Chávez has the support and the health to win an additional term, some say he’s outstaying his welcome.
Two decades is simply too long for anyone to stay in power, said Kelvin Zedeño, 42, a Caracas mechanic. At a recent Capriles rally he held up a sign reading “I’m a squalid one” – one of Chávez’s favorite epithets for the opposition.
“We don’t want to be stuck with one president for the rest of our lives,” he said. “Change is good thing.”
Chávez said too much was at stake for a change.
“What’s in play is not what we’ve accomplished in these years, or what we’re accomplishing now,” he said. “What’s at risk is the future of our country, this century and our era.”