CARACAS, Venezuela — A huge crowd filled the streets of Venezuela’s capital on Sunday cheering for opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski, waving flags in a show of support one week before the country’s hotly contested presidential election.
Capriles, the grandson of Jewish Holocaust survivors from Russia and Poland, waved from a truck that rolled through the vast expanse of supporters. The crowd overflowed from Bolivar Avenue, the widest downtown thoroughfare, which according to some estimates has a capacity to hold about 260,000 people. The authorities didn’t provide a crowd estimate.
“Bolivar Avenue is too small for us,” Capriles shouted to the crowd, which was the largest of any opposition gathering in recent years.
Capriles, who describes himself as a “fervent Catholic,” has a Jewish mother. His grandmother spent 20 months in the Warsaw Ghetto, and his great-grandparents were killed at the Treblinka extermination camp. The presidential contender’s father, while raised Catholic, also has Sephardi Jewish roots.
Though his parents raised him as a Catholic, Capriles’ Jewish ancestry has at times elicited vicious anti-semitic attacks from the press. According to the Wall Street Journal, Capriles “was vilified in a campaign in Venezuela’s state-run media, which insinuated he was, among other things, a homosexual and a Zionist agent.”
While President Hugo Chavez led a rally with tens of thousands of supporters in western Zulia state on Sunday, authorities were investigating the killings of two men in a shooting that erupted elsewhere during an opposition campaign caravan on Saturday.
Capriles condemned the killings in western Barinas state.
“On Oct. 7 we’re going to defeat violence in Venezuela,” Capriles said. “Our country is tired of the violence, of the division, of the confrontation. … The time of hatred is going to be buried in Venezuela.”
Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami said in a message on Twitter that a suspect was arrested in the killings, but he didn’t immediately identify him.
Opposition lawmaker Julio Cesar Reyes said on Saturday that a group of Chavez’s supporters blocked the caravan and people on both sides were arguing when a gunman appeared and started shooting.
Opposition officials said both men killed were participants in the motorcade of Capriles supporters.
One video posted on YouTube showed the two groups arguing on a street when gunshots rang out and people ran for cover.
Violence has erupted previously during the campaign for the Oct. 7 vote, but these were the first deaths.
Chavez rallied thousands of supporters during weekend street events in Guarenas, a town east of Caracas, and in western Zulia state.
“It’s impossible for us to lose,” Chavez said at Saturday’s rally in Guarenas. The crowd chanted: “Ooh, Ahh, Chavez won’t go!”
People grabbed at red T-shirts that were thrown into the crowd. Some stood on rooftops cheering, and women screamed as Chavez passed.
Yusneidy Rondon, a 26-year-old student, shouted with emotion and danced in the street after getting close enough to hand Chavez a letter.
“Chavez forever. … I love him!” gushed Rondon, who said that in her letter she had asked the president to provide her with a computer, just as she now enjoys free university tuition.
While Chavez touted his achievements during his speech, he also said “self-criticism” is important and acknowledged that problems including a housing shortage and sporadic blackouts remain.
“There are reasons for many people to be dissatisfied with this government that I lead,” Chavez told the crowd. But, he added, “On Oct. 7, it isn’t at stake whether the light went out or not… whether they’ve given me a house or not.”
“Those are very important problems and we’re working to solve them,” Chavez said. “My socialist government is going to continue solving our big problems.”
Many analysts say they expect a tight race. A recent poll by the Venezuelan firm Consultores 21 put the two candidates roughly even, with 46.5 percent saying they would vote for Capriles and nearly 46 percent saying they would vote for Chavez. The poll had an error margin of 3 percentage points.
Another survey by Datanalisis this month showed Chavez with a 10-point lead over Capriles, while 11 percent of those interviewed didn’t reveal a preference.
Addressing the crowd in Caracas, Capriles criticized Chavez for what he called a long list of unfulfilled promises, noting that years ago the president pledged to clean up the sewage-filled Guaire River in Caracas and it remains badly polluted.
“Where’s the cleanup? Pure chatter,” Capriles told the crowd.
The opposition leader criticized what he called gifts by Chavez’s government to other countries, and rattled off a list including a donation to a Puerto Rican music group, a hospital in Uruguay and prefabricated homes in Guatemala.
Capriles’ supporters converged on the demonstration by marching down several avenues, blowing horns and whistles. Some chanted: “We see it, we feel it, Capriles president!”
“I’m marching for my grandchildren, for my future,” said Segunda Palacios, a retired teacher. “We don’t want a tyrant anymore.”
She said if Chavez wins re-election, “that would be catastrophic for the country.”