CARACAS — For 14 years, Hugo Chavez has charmed them, inspired them, and made them believe he is nothing short of their savior.
‘‘Chavistas’’ are the lifeblood of the Venezuelan leader’s leftist movement, and as he runs for reelection on Sunday, the question is whether Chavez still has enough popular appeal to stave off the toughest challenge of his presidency from youthful rival Henrique Capriles. It is a historic test for Latin America’s most outspoken and divisive leader — and for his ‘‘Chavismo’’ movement.
His loyalists have been filling streets all over the country wearing red T-shirts with the slogan ‘‘Chavez isn’t going away!’’ They cruise in caravans of motorcycles with posters of a smiling Chavez plastered to the handlebars. At campaign rallies, admirers hand him letters and women scream: ‘‘Chavez, I love you!’’
For many in the crowds, ‘‘El Comandante’’ is the country’s first president to come from humble beginnings and genuinely care about the poor. They are thankful to the former paratrooper for building public housing, expanding free universities, and setting up affordable state-run grocery stores.
Kengly Sanabria, a pregnant 21-year-old student, cheered at one rally in the town of Guarenas and showed off a message written on her bulging belly: ‘‘With Chavez, I’ll be secure.’’
Hailing ‘El Comandante’
‘‘I support Chavez to ensure my son’s future,’’ said Sanabria, who studies for free at a public university and says her family never could have afforded tuition. She shops at a government food store, gets checkups at a subsidized clinic, and is applying for public housing.
Some recent polls show Chavez with a lead of about 10 percentage points over Capriles, while others put the two candidates roughly even.
Violent crime, 18-percent inflation, and accusations of government corruption and ineffectiveness have taken a political toll on Chavez, and the election will reveal how many remain loyal despite it all — and whether he still has his popular touch.
Thousands of his supporters and government employees filled Caracas’s streets on Thursday for his final rally, blowing horns and waving flags while his campaign jingle blared from speakers: ‘‘Chavez, heart of the people!’’
At each stop, Chavez has trumpeted his ‘‘socialism for the 21st century’’ and emphasized that only his movement can guarantee stability and benefits for the poor and working class. Then Chavez reaches for the grand finale. Only he can protect the gains, he says, because he is Venezuela itself and its people.
Judging by the reaction from Chavistas, that message has won him lasting loyalty.