President Hugo Chavez said Thursday during a marathon news conference that authorities had foiled a planned sniper attack against his main opponent in this weekend’s elections.
As campaigning ended ahead of Sunday’s vote, Chavez said “fascist” militants had planned to use a rifle with a telescopic sight to shoot Manuel Rosales during a speech and then blame it on Chavez’s government in hopes of derailing the balloting.
“It was to say that Chavez sent them to kill him, and generate chaos,” Chavez told reporters at the presidential palace.
The Venezuelan leader used the 3 1/2-hour news conference to laud achievements of his “people’s revolution” — citing statistics on lowered unemployment, a deep drop in poverty and petroleum-fueled economic growth.
He even quoted analysts from major foreign banks as saying the most dangerous scenario for this politically polarized country would be a Chavez election loss.
On the alleged assassination plot, Chavez said authorities had seized the rifle from a vehicle and that a military officer had been arrested. He did not offer further details but a high-ranking military official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not unauthorized to talk to reporters, said a naval officer was under investigation.
Rosales’ campaign said it had no knowledge of the plan. “This is a smoke screen. It’s to manipulate the people, but nobody believes that,” said Timoteao Zambrano, one of Rosales’ campaign managers.
“The government is obliged to safeguard the lives of all Venezuelans, and that includes the presidential candidate,” Zambrano said. “If something were to happen to our candidate, the government would be responsible.”
Campaigning ended Thursday. Rosales supporters cite polls showing Sunday’s balloting will be tight, although an independent AP-Ipsos survey and other recent polls found Chavez with a large lead.
Rosales has called the vote a choice between democracy and an increasingly authoritarian Cuba-style system. Chavez, who was swept into power in 1998 on popular discontent with a corrupt political class, calls Rosales is a lackey for the United States.
Chavez has taken advantage of Venezuela’s oil wealth to lavish the poor with programs that provide everything from subsidized food to free health care and education. And he persistently accuses the “imperialist” U.S. government of trying to topple him, on Thursday saying the “U.S. empire” had done more damage to Latin America than colonial Spain.
He urged his enemies to respect the result of the vote, calling an upset impossible and suggesting that some opposition activists are planning post-election violence.
“There are two options here — ours and that of the U.S. empire and its flunkeys here, who were the ones who staged the coup,” Chavez said, referring to a two-day coup in 2002. Chavez was returned to power by street protests and loyalists in the military.
Rosales said his supporters would be on alert for possible vote fraud.
“It has to be a clean game ... If that happens, all of us will be calm,” Rosales, a political veteran who is ex-governor of Zulia state, told The Associated Press shortly before closing his campaign with a rally of hundreds of thousands in Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second-largest city.
He has managed to unite Venezuela’s opposition movement for the first time since a crushing defeat in a 2004 recall referendum against Chavez.
Chavez accused Rosales of lying about signing a document supporting the short-lived coup.
“Everyone saw the ex-governor here in this room signing the coup proclamation. So he’s said no, that what he signed was an attendance sheet,” Chavez said.
“What nerve! And a gentleman like that wants to be president!” Chavez said, adding, “A liar cannot be president of a country, much less of Venezuela.”
Chavez insisted that his proposal for constitutional changes to do away with presidential term limits “is not a dictatorship, it’s democracy.” He noted that presidents of France have served long periods in power.
Venezuela has become increasingly polarized along class lines, with the wealthier supporting Rosales, the poor backing Chavez and a fractured middle class.
Shoppers are packing supermarkets to stock up on supplies, fearful that Sunday’s outcome could prompt street protests and violence.