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Venezuela’s Chávez dances in the rain in show of health and force before key elections

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez danced in the rain and led his followers in song Thursday, as the former military officer and cancer survivor fights to win an additional six-year term in Sunday’s critical presidential vote.

In the final mass gathering of his campaign, Chávez, 58, warned the crowd that his defeat would bring an end to his popular social programs and leave the oil-rich nation of 30 million in the hands of oligarchs.

“We cannot allow them to demolish Venezuela again,” he said as he stood in the driving rain. “The life of this nation is at stake. The life of the people is in play.”

The rally drew hundreds of thousands of followers from across the country, and was a powerful demonstration of the government’s ability to mobilize the masses. Busses and pickups packed with red-clad supporters began arriving early Thursday, and by the afternoon Chávistas had packed seven of Caracas’ main arteries.

The administration is counting on the same political machinery to get out the vote Sunday in what some are expecting to be one of the closest races of Chávez’s almost 14-year tenure. While most polls give Chávez the lead, a few show him in a dead heat with former Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles, 40.

With a moratorium on campaigning going into effect at midnight, Capriles spent the day in the western state of Apure, where he vowed to help the poor and bridge the ideological divide.

“Even though the government says it has the power, next Sunday the people will decide who’s president,” he said. Capriles held his own rally in Caracas on Sunday and student supporters marched down a central boulevard Wednesday to take the iconic Venezuela Plaza.

But Thursday belonged to Chávez, as he rode a platform truck to the presidential palace, blowing kisses and pumping his fists amid a surging crowd.

Chávez has undergone at least three surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation in the last 16 months to treat an undisclosed form of cancer that he claims to have beaten. After sticking close to Caracas for most of the campaign, he spent the last few weeks in a flurry of activity, drawing massive crowds to his national rallies. On Thursday, he looked healthy and energetic, playing air guitar at the front of the stage and hopping around in the rain.

Neidy Camacho traveled with about 30 other people for five hours from Lara state to be at the event.

“We’re going to force Capriles and his people to recognize defeat,” said Camacho, who is a land rights activist. “Chávez is the only president who’s really stood up for poor people.”

Many of the country’s 2.4 million state workers were given the day off to attend the event, and groups of government employees, dressed in their uniforms, huddled in the crowd.

In a statement Thursday, the opposition said it had proof that the administration was forcing workers to attend the rally.

“They should be ashamed,” Ramón Guillermo Aveledo, the executive secretary of the opposition coalition said in a statement. “But this government lacks scruples and it’s capable of carrying out abuses like this.”

Wilmer Montoya, 43, works for the Ministry of Nutrition and was attending the rally with his colleagues. While the government did give him the day off, nobody made him come to the rally, he said.

“If we were forced to be here do you think you’d see so many smiles and so much enthusiasm,” he said as a drum-line of supporters danced down the street. “We’d be walking around like robots, but just look around you.”

While Chávez said he was certain that he would give the “bourgeoisie a beating” at the polls, he asked his followers to wake up at three in the morning Sunday “have a coffee or a chocolate” and cast their vote early so that his victory would be assured by noon.

While Chávez’s stump speech was short on details, he pledged that by the end of his six-year term, everyone would have decent housing and a job. He also said he would build 10 new public universities by the end of his tenure.

Capriles has also vowed to keep helping the poor but said the country needs more business-friendly policies.

During one of the most emotional parts of Chávez speech, he suggested his health problems were the result of his passion for his job.

“On several occasions, I have almost died for being faithful to the nation,” he said. “I will not let you down. I will always be faithful to the people of Venezuela.”