January 20, 2007 / 10:05 AM / 12 years ago

UPDATE 1-Chavez vows to beat the "devil" in December vote

(Adds description of polarization, opposition neighborhoods)

By Brian Ellsworth

CARACAS, Venezuela, Nov 26 (Reuters) - Venezuela’s leftist President Hugo Chavez on Sunday promised hundreds of thousands of supporters he would win a resounding victory in his Dec. 3 reelection bid he describes as a challenge to Washington.

The former soldier and self-styled revolutionary is favored in the polls to beat rival Manuel Rosales after building a solid political base through a social development campaign financed by oil revenues.

Chavez supporters flooded Caracas thoroughfares waving flags and banners, congregating in different parts of the downtown a day after Rosales sympathizers held a similar march to close his campaign in the capital city.

“We are confronting the devil, and we will hit a home run off the devil next Sunday,” said Chavez, who ruffled feathers in October by calling U.S. President George W. Bush the devil in remarks at the United Nations.

“On December 3 we’re going to defeat the most powerful empire on earth by knockout,” Chavez said.

Donning red like most of his supporters, Chavez delivered a two-hour speech marked by his signature combination of fiery leftist rhetoric and crowd antics typical of pop music concerts.

He spent nearly ten minutes trying to see which of four groups of demonstrators could cheer louder — then told them all to be quiet.

“Whoever talks first will turn into a donkey,” he thundered, only to break into his unmistakable giggle.

Following his speech, Chavez drove through the packed Avenida Bolivar standing atop a campaign vehicle, dancing to political jingles and occasionally reaching into the crowd to shake hands with supporters.

POLARIZED SOCIETY

The weekend, with massive government and opposition rallies choking the capital’s streets, reflected the country’s political polarization.

In the opposition stronghold of Altamira, Chavez supporters on their way to the march leaned out of windows waving posters of their “Comandante,” and screamed “Viva Chavez.”

Residents in expensive sports-utility vehicles honked their horns in protest and shouted the opposition slogan “Dare.”

But a street cleaner and parking attendant held up their hands and spread their fingers, a symbol of Chavez’s goal of sweeping 10 million of Venezuela’s 16 million voters.

The demonstrations themselves were also markedly different, with Chavez’s joking spontaneity contrasting with Rosales’ emotional but stern and unsmiling appearance in the opposition’s Saturday march.

Rosales in August united a fractured opposition movement that failed to oust Chavez through a botched coup and a grueling two-month oil strike in 2002 and a failed recall referendum in 2004.

Most polls give Chavez a wide lead, with one AP-Ipsos poll showing Chavez sweeping 59 percent of likely voters compared to only 27 percent for Rosales, who points to opposition-linked polls that show the race much tighter.

First elected in 1998, Chavez, a close ally of Cuba’s Fidel Castro, has galvanized the nation’s poor with promises of a revolution. But he has sparked outcries among middle class critics who call him an authoritarian.

The U.S. State Department describes him as a menace to regional democracy, though Venezuela remains the fourth-largest exporter of oil to the United States.

Additional reporting by Saul Hudson

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