Venezuela: Show of strength from opposition

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Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan opposition supporters have rallied in a pro-government part of the capital, ­answering a call by their candidate, Henrique Capriles, and showing strength a week before the presidential election.

“The streets of Caracas are full of happiness and hope, confirming what will happen next ­Sunday,” Mr Capriles, 40, told the crowd.

He faces acting president Nicolas Maduro, who has vowed to continue the hardline socialism of his late boss, Hugo Chavez, if he wins the 14 April election. Mr Maduro held a huge rally on Sunday in rural Apure state, on the Colombian border.

More often seen filled with the red flags and T-shirts of Mr Chavez’s loyal supporters, the capital’s historic Bolivar Avenue was packed with opposition supporters decked out in the blue, yellow and red of Mr Capriles’s campaign during Sunday’s rally.

He said that the day following his election victory would be one of peace and reconciliation among all Venezuelans. He addressed supporters of Mr Maduro’s government directly, saying: “Those who put on a red shirt today, I just ask you: open your eyes! I’ll work hard, I’ll shed skin, to win your trust.”

Despite the opposition leader’s optimism, opinion polls give Mr Maduro a lead of more than ten percentage points.

Opposition supporters marched from across the city to converge on the avenue, where they waved flags, cheered and sang. Around the edges of the rally, groups of red-clad “Chavista” pro-government supporters chanted in favour of Mr Maduro.

Both candidates are touring the country to campaign ahead of next Sunday’s vote, which was triggered by Mr Chavez’s death from cancer on 5 March.

There have been deeply personal attacks and accusations of dirty tricks by both sides.

The race took a somewhat surreal turn on Saturday, when Mr Maduro said a centuries-old curse would fall on the heads of those who do not vote for him.

“If anyone among the people votes against Nicolas Maduro, he is voting against himself, and the curse of Macarapana is falling on him,” said Mr Maduro, referring to the 16th century Battle of Macarapana, when Spanish colonial fighters massacred local Indian forces.

Mr Maduro, 50, is a former bus driver and union leader who rose to become Mr Chavez’s foreign minister, then vice-president. At his rallies, he frequently refers to Mr Chavez.

“He taught us the supreme value of loyalty. With loyalty, everything is possible. Betrayal only brings defeats and curses,” Mr Maduro said on Sunday.

He once again accused the opposition of hatching a plot to assassinate him.

He has also accused the US government of planning to kill Mr Capriles and blame it on his government in order to spark unrest before the election. Washington denied this.

Mr Capriles has ridiculed Mr Maduro’s claims and likened them to Mr Chavez’s denunciations of “imperialist” assassination plots during his 14-year rule. The opposition says such claims are designed to distract voters from daily problems such as violent crime, high prices and creaking public services.

Mr Capriles is vowing to install a Brazil-style administration of free-market economics with strong social welfare policies. He mocks Mr Maduro as a bad copy of Mr Chavez, and says his decisions as acting president caused a currency devaluation and price spikes that have been disastrous for Venezuelans.

Gisela Quijada, 68, attending the Caracas opposition rally, said the country was broken.

She said: “I like Capriles … the other one is immature. He just wants to be a copy of Chavez.

“Chavez was a leader for them. I can’t deny it. But he [Maduro] has nothing in his head. If Capriles doesn’t win, we’ll keep on fighting for him. But we’re sure he’s going to win!”