Caracas, Venezuela – Venezuela's presidential campaign began officially on Sunday, as President Hugo Chavez and opposition candidate Henrique Capriles rallied supporters for the upcoming October vote.
Chavez wore his red beret, waving and blowing kisses as he greeted crowds of supporters from atop a truck that rolled from north-central Carabobo state to the nearby city of Maracay, where he spoke from a stage.
"The Bolivarian hurricane has gotten started!" Chavez told a crowd, referring to his leftist movement, the Bolivarian Revolution. "We're going to pulverize them!"
Capriles started his campaign with rallies in opposite ends of the country, in southeastern Bolivar state and in western Zulia state.
"The one who's in power, he's only interested in something, and that's staying in power," Capriles told supporters in Bolivar state. "I'm part of a new leadership. ... I'm here to look for solutions to your problems."
Capriles wore an indigenous headband adorned with feathers as he promised to help the country's indigenous minority, saying they've long been neglected by the government. He also promised to fight violent crime and inflation.
Chavez has been in office since 1999 and is seeking another six-year term in the Oct. 7 election.
The 57-year-old president is starting his campaign after months of cancer treatment that have created uncertainty about his political future. Last week, Chavez reiterated that he had undergone tests after his latest radiation therapy in Cuba and is doing well.
"The results were all positive," Chavez said. He added, in an apparent reference to further cancer treatments, that "at this time, on the horizon I see ... I don't expect any of that."
In the past year, Chavez has undergone two surgeries that removed tumors from his pelvic region, most recently in February. Chavez has not disclosed some details about his illness, including the type of cancer or the precise location of the tumors.
Chavez referred to his illness only briefly in Sunday's campaign speech, saying he's thankful to God "for allowing me to have passed through this difficult past year, and to have arrived here today."
Chavez has been leading in recent polls, though results have varied widely. The government has been touting polls showing a lead of about 20 percentage points for Chavez, while the pollster Consultores 21 released a survey last week showing the two candidates nearly even.
Supporters of both candidates took to the streets on Sunday honking horns and holding flags in caravans of vehicles and motorcycles.
Chavez dismissed Capriles by calling him "el majunche," a term used by Venezuelans meaning mediocre or poor quality.
"They're already defeated," Chavez said. "I've never had such boring contenders."
In response to such verbal attacks, Capriles said: "The proposals of the government today are summed up in three things: threats, insults and a lot of fear."
Capriles, a 39-year-old state governor, won a February primary vote to become the opposition's single candidate. Even before the start of campaigning, Capriles has recently been crisscrossing the country making door-to-door visits, while Chavez has largely limited his public appearances to government events in Caracas.
Chavez has pledged to push Venezuela further toward socialism if re-elected. He has used the country's oil earnings to bankroll social programs for the poor that have helped him maintain popularity, and has said he hopes to stay in office for years to come leading the Bolivarian Revolution, which is named after South American independence leader Simon Bolivar.
Capriles and other opposition politicians contend Chavez's policies have wrecked the economy, worsened crime and made the country unattractive to investment. Capriles says he favors social programs for the poor but also criticizes the government's expropriations of private businesses and says if elected he would encourage private investment to create jobs.