CARACAS -- In one of the most combative and optimistic speeches of his rushed campaign, opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles said internal polling showed him with a growing lead over rival Nicolás Maduro, one week before the crucial vote that will determine the future of the oil-rich nation.
In his final rally in Caracas on Sunday, Capriles told throngs of supporters that the campaign of Maduro, the interim president, was “collapsing” and that victory was within reach.
“We are winning this process,” he said. “Twenty days ago, people said it would be impossible, but I told the nation that even though we have all the powers against us we have the hopes of millions of people.”
Polls taken before campaigning began April 2 showed Maduro with a double-digit lead. And the administration says those numbers are holding up.
But Capriles, 40, has been drawing large, enthusiastic crowds to his rallies, even in government strongholds.
Sunday’s event was a key show of strength for his candidacy, and tens of thousands of people paralyzed downtown Caracas, chanting and dancing along with campaign jingles. But Capriles has been here before. In October, when he ran against late-President Hugo Chávez, the size and enthusiasm of his rallies had many hoping he might pull off an upset. Instead, he lost by 11 points.
But on Sunday, his supporters said much has changed since then. During the last few months, while Maduro has been at the helm, the country has seen food shortages, currency devaluations and persistent crime. Many in the crowd said Sunday’s event was larger than last year’s.
Fabian Pate, 20, said he was so moved by a recent Capriles rally in his hometown of Maracay that he traveled to Caracas to follow the candidate. He shrugged off polls that show Maduro in the lead.
“Polls don’t win elections, votes do,” he said. “Look at the enthusiasm in the street.”
But not everyone thought the crowds were a good barometer of the electoral outcome.
Near Plaza Venezuela, Johnny Lopez, 32, was selling hot dogs, smoking a cigarette and watching groups of Capriles supporters gather.
He said that despite the crowds, he couldn’t forget that just a few weeks ago, throngs of people were lining up to catch a glimpse of Chávez, who died March 5.
“For 11 days, millions and millions of people came to pay their respect to President Chávez with lines stretching for miles,” he said. “Who do you think all those people are going to vote for?”
Maduro, Chávez’s chosen successor, will get the chance to test his mettle during his rally in Caracas on Thursday, the final day of campaigning.
On Sunday, he was in Apure state, in western Venezuela. There, he said his victory was assured and that Capriles only had one more week before defeat sent him running to “New York” or “oblivion.”
“The bigger our victory is in the country, the more guarantees we’ll have that good things are coming our way,” Maduro said, “prosperity, work, stability … a socialist revolution.”
Chávez’s death after an 18-month battle with cancer triggered snap elections with compressed timeframes. This campaign will only last 10 days, but it’s already been one of the most vitriolic on record.
On Saturday, Foreign Minister Elías Jaua said Venezuelan intelligence had uncovered a plot to assassinate Maduro using mercenaries brought in from Central America. Days earlier, the government said that former U.S. diplomats Otto Reich and Roger Noriega were scheming to kill Capriles to create chaos and provide cover for an invasion.
Capriles on Sunday dismissed those claims as part of a dirty tricks campaign and said the administration would be trotting out a former governor to give the allegations a patina of truth.
“They had one story but now they’re coming out with another one,” Capriles said. “Nicolás, don’t be ridiculous, man. Let’s count the votes on April 14 and let the people decide.”
On the campaign trail, Capriles has accused Maduro and other Chávez insiders of hijacking the government and bending the rules to stay in power. And he compared his mustachioed rival to “Satan” for trying to divide the country and saying opposition voters would be cursed.
“I will do everything to win the trust of all Venezuelans,” Capriles said. “I don’t want anyone in this country when I’m president to say they were left out.”
Capriles, the governor of Miranda, will continue barnstorming the nation throughout the week and wrap up his campaign Thursday in Barquisimeto, Venezuela’s fourth-largest city and an opposition stronghold.
The winner of Sunday’s vote will complete Chávez’s term through 2019.
Lauriano Hernandez, a 50-year-old business administrator at the Capriles rally, said he was confident the opposition’s time had come.
“It’s going to be very difficult, but he can win,” he said, as he waved a Venezuelan flag. “It’s now or never.”