Hugo Chavez has led his biggest rally since he was diagnosed with cancer a year ago, seeking to stage a show of strength as he heads into a re-election campaign to extend his 13 years of socialist rule.
The Venezuelan president stood on top of a lorry in Caracas on Monday as it drove through huge crowds of supporters who cheered and threw roses and confetti as he made a dramatic re-entry into the public eye after months of keeping a low profile during cancer treatment.
The 57-year-old Chavez, a former army paratroop commander first elected in 1998, is seeking another six-year term in the October 7 presidential vote.
The rally in the Venezuelan capital was all the more important after his opposition rival, Henrique Capriles, put on a show of youthful vigour on Sunday by leading a 10km march with hundreds of thousands of supporters to register his candidacy.
"I give this to you with a promise to fight, to battle, and of course to win," Chavez said as he handed
electoral officials his plan for government.
Walking with difficulty
Chavez had entered the building appearing to walk with some difficulty, hand in hand with two of his daughters.
Outside, several giant inflatable Chavez dolls waved their arms above the crowd as the president's fans danced to music pounding from speakers. Hundreds of buses that ferried his followers to Caracas stood parked in side streets.
In a Twitter message, Capriles said: "This candidate isn't walking, he is out of gasoline! ... A better future of progress is coming!"
Any turn for the worse in Chavez's health could mean the end for his movement. That would be a blow to global leftist leaders who see him as an inspiration, but a boon to investors seeking free-market reforms in Venezuela and oil companies keen on tapping the world's biggest crude reserves.
Chavez's allies have kept his image in the public eye for months with rallies from which he was notably absent or appeared only via Twitter messages that cabinet ministers read out live.
Chavez has at times seemed to revel in the rumors of his imminent demise, which range from him being confined to a wheelchair to reports that he has only two months to live.
Last year he said he underwent two operations to remove a baseball-sized tumour, and this year had a third operation only months after having declared himself "cancer free".
Guarded state secret
The true condition of Chavez is a guarded state secret.
Most of the country's main pollsters show Chavez holding a double-digit lead over Capriles. But Venezuela's public opinion is known to shift dramatically, as it did when Chavez came from behind in to win his first election.
Chavez spoke extensively on Saturday with reporters, joking and telling stories while standing on the steps of the presidential palace in a live television appearance.
He said a battery of medical exams had come out "absolutely fine," but did not say whether he would need more treatment.
Critics accuse Chavez allies of using state resources to swell demonstrations and forcing government employees to attend.
Leopoldo Lopez, opposition leader, said the ruling Socialist Party had ordered ministries to help bring 120,000 people to Monday's march in Caracas, citing what he called an internal party document.
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|William A. Cook|