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Venezuela’s opposition rallies in massive show of force for Capriles

Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, 40, closed his whirlwind presidential campaign with a massive rally Sunday that clogged the streets of the capital and left his supporters hoping they might end the 14-year administration of President Hugo Chávez.

Wearing the red, yellow and blue colors of the Venezuelan flag and tossing caps into the crowd, Capriles plowed through hundreds of thousands of screaming fans along Caracas’ iconic Bolivar Ave.

In the final speech of his campaign, Capriles accused Chávez, 58, of leaving behind a string of broken promises, squandering the nation’s oil wealth and neglecting voters. He also reminded the public of his own 14-year career as a congressman, a mayor and the governor of Venezuela’s second-largest state.

“Judge for yourself who’s still fighting for change and who got sick on power,” Capriles told the cheering crowd. “Because the person in the Miraflores [presidential palace] has forgotten about the people of Venezuela.”

Chávez held a massive rally in the westen state of Zulia on Sunday and will hold his own closing rally Thursday – the final day of campaigning – in Caracas, where he has vowed to flood the city in a sea of red-clad followers.

The dueling events comes as Venezuela’s 19 million voters head to the polls Sunday in what some believe could be the tightest race of Chávez’s career. While many pollsters give the president a comfortable lead, others show the two candidates in a dead heat.

Lisette Abdala, a chemist for a state-owned company, was waving a blue Capriles flag as she watched rivers of people swarm the streets. She said many of the estimated 2.4 million public sector workers are tired of Chávez, even if they’re scared to admit it in public for fear of losing their jobs.

“A co-worker of mine was forced to go to a Chávez rally yesterday,” Abdala said. “But today she’s here because she wants to be here.”

Capriles has seen his popularity swell as he’s tried to convince people like Abdala that they have nothing to fear from change. In some cases, he’s vowed to push Chávez’s signature socialist reforms even further.

On Sunday, Capriles tipped his hat to the administration’s housing “mission” that has given free dwellings to thousands of people. But he said the government’ refusal to hand over titles to those homes was tantamount to “blackmail.”

Those properties “are yours,” Capriles said. “I am going to give you the titles to your property.”

But making inroads with the poor won’t be easy. Consultores 21, one of the few pollsters that gives Capriles the lead, also shows Chávez has a six-point advantage among the poorest voters.

Jesús Pérez and two friends sleep by an open-air storm sewer that sweeps through downtown Caracas. As they watched Capriles’ supporters march by, they said there was nothing the candidate could do or say that would make them abandon El Comandante. The administration has given them free health care and the president seems to speak to them directly when he talked about the poor, Pérez said.

“Chávez was sent to us by Jesus,” he said, as he watched a friend peel plantains – the day’s lunch.

“He’s the only one who has really cared about people like us.”

Despite isolated shouting matches between rival political factions, there were no initial reports of violence. On Saturday, at least two Capriles’ supporters were killed in the western state of Barinas after the caravan they were travelling in was attacked, presumably by government supporters. The interior ministry said Sunday it had made an arrest in that case and is investigating.

Capriles seized on the attack to criticize Chávez, who has been ramping up the rhetoric and regularly talks about “knocking out” his “boot-licking” rival.

“Our country is tired of violence, division and confrontation,” Capriles said. “Those...young people didn’t have to die because of someone else’s intolerance.”

Venezuela has the fourth-highest homicide rate in the world after Honduras, El Salvador and Jamaica, according to the United Nations. And while the Chávez administration has rolled out more than a dozen security plans it has failed to make a dent in the crime.

Rafael Botello, 57, said he sent his son abroad after he was almost killed twice during robbery attempts. As he rode his bicycle through the march on Sunday, Botello, a former agronomist, says he holds the administration personally responsible.

“What did we do to Chávez and his people that make them want to destroy us and our families?” he said. “I had to send my son to Los Angeles, but at least I can sleep at night now.”

Capriles, a trained lawyer, emerged as Chávez’s chief rival in February when he swept an opposition primary. Since then, he has spent months barnstorming the nation, visiting towns that rarely see candidates. His staff said he’d traveled to almost 300 communities and looped the nation three times.

“I haven’t seen a campaign like this since perhaps 1963,” said Alfredo Weil, a former member of the national election council, who now runs the election watchdog group Esdata. “The energy he has put in to it is just staggering.”

El Nuevo Herald Reporter Juan Tamayo contributed to this report