CARACAS, Venezuela — The killing of three opposition activists have overshadowed the final weekend of campaigning before Venezuela’s presidential election next Sunday, the toughest yet for incumbent Hugo Chavez.
Living in a country with one of the world’s highest murder rates coupled with intense political fervor, Venezuelans were little shocked by the deaths of the activists campaigning for the candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski, Chavez’s only rival on the ballot.
“We’re going to defeat violence in Venezuela,” Capriles said Sunday as hundreds of thousands of supporters converged on one of Caracas’ main avenues in his biggest campaign rally yet. He added that the deaths should “never have happened.”
The shootings took place Saturday in Barinas, Chavez’s home state. The gunmen arereported by eyewitnesses to have fired from a van belonging to PDVSA, the state oil company, that was blocking the opposition motorcade.
Justice Minister Tarek El Aissami described the event as an “isolated incident.” However, it is not the first time Chavez supporters have been seen attempting to thwart an opposition campaign event and Capriles has in the past pointed the finger directly at the president.
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Two weeks ago, after men hurled stones and set a vehicle on fire in the traditionally pro-Chavez town of Puerto Cabello, Capriles said, “These acts are not spontaneous, there is someone responsible … It is [Chavez], and I say this directly: It is you who wants this scenario, you who wants to spread fear, you who wants Venezuelans to continue fighting each other.”
Those words were surprisingly sharp for a candidate who is courting traditional Chavez supporters, something he is succeeding at even in the poorer slums of the country.
Both candidates are campaigning hard with just a week to go until the vote deciding whether to continue or end Chavez’s 13-year rule.
At a government march in Guarenas Saturday, Chavez asked a sea of red-clad supporters keep calm and not take to the streets should he lose the election. Many in the crowd were drinking and at least one showed off a gun.
The atmosphere was calmer on Sunday in Caracas as Capriles supporters took to the streets of the capital. “The violence yesterday paints a picture of what is happening in this country,” said Luis Array, a 23-year-old student, referring to the country’s terrible crime record.
Aura Alleno, a 49-year-old dressed in a hat and T-shirt with the Capriles campaign slogan “Hay Un Camino” (There is a way), said she worried like many present Sunday that Chavez would not go quietly if defeated.
“Chavez will fight if he doesn’t win,” she said. “We will fight through our vote.”