CIUDAD GUYANA, Venezuela — They had a big inflatable Chávez — that’s Hugo Chávez, the father of the Venezuelan revolution. They had folk music — and even a harp. There was a sea of government supporters clad in red shirts. President Nicolás Maduro danced.
There were also buses — buses that had toted thousands of factory and state workers to hear Maduro, Venezuela’s autocratic leader, in one of his last campaign stops before Sunday’s election, which he is widely expected to win. In a country confronting soaring poverty and hunger, many received ham and cheese sandwiches with juice. Some came with requests — handwritten on folded notes, which they begged guards to hand to Maduro on stage.
The campaign stop this week offered a window into the psychology of those who support Maduro, a leader the Trump administration has called a “dictator” who has run his country into the ground. This was Maduro as benefactor in a country of people in desperate need.
Instead of aspiring to a glorious future on the back of Venezuela’s leftist revolution, most turned out seeking far more modest gains in a country on the verge of collapse. Euclider Guerra, a 35-year-old factory worker, came to ask for a wheelchair for his mother. Yennifer Gold, a 30-year-old mother of four, said she came in hope of getting government housing — and to make sure she kept receiving the subsidized, if ever smaller, baskets of government food.
“Yes we’re struggling . . . with food and water,” she said. Venezuela’s hyperinflation — the highest in the world — has priced food out of reach for millions. At the same time, she said, this city of 1.4 million, like those across this nation, was also suffering from water shortages due to breakdowns in the grid and a lack of spare parts.
“But I came here because I want a house,” she said. “I was told to bring a letter, and that it would be given to the president. I’ll vote . . . and then the only thing I have left is to pray that I get what I need in return.”
Traditional opposition candidates have been banned from running in the elections, though Maduro, the anointed successor of Chávez, who died in 2013, is facing two main challengers — Henri Falcon, a former follower of Chávez, and Javier Bertucci, an evangelical preacher. Maduro, a former truck driver and union leader, is reaching for a new mandate that would leave him in charge for another six years.
In this tropical town in eastern Venezuela’s mining region, Maduro, in an open collar blue shirt, alternately displayed signs of vulnerability and strength. He described himself as a “humble worker” who had “made mistakes.” Though he has vilified the upper classes here in the past, he appeared to offer them an olive branch.
“I want to be closer to the middle class. To the business class, those who want to work together, I am ready.”
But he also blamed outside forces and domestic enemies for Venezuela’s woes, and called himself the only person able to guide the country out of crisis. He took swipes at the “El Imperio” — the empire, his moniker for the United States. But during an earlier news conference, he called the possibility of talks between North Korea and President Trump — talks that are now in jeopardy — as a potential model for improved relations between Washington and Caracas.
“The dialogue process between North Korea and the U.S. government is very positive,” he said. “We don’t have nuclear weapons, and we’re very different, but it could work as an example of the need for tolerance in the world and respect for differences.”
He added: “Of course me and Donald Trump are different, very different, and Venezuela is very different to the U.S., although we admire and respect them. Among the different, there needs to be dialogue.”
In the crowd at Wednesday’s rally, there were thousands of workers from public utilities and local industries — steel, aluminum, electricity. Some were fervent Maduro supporters who attributed their problems — rising prices of food, water shortages and medicine scarcity — to an “economic war” by nefarious capitalists.
“This country has never had presidents like Chávez and Maduro, who have given the poor power,” said Diego Hernandez, 29, a worker at the aluminum factory Venalum. He joined other workers in a bus to come here, he said, adding that they were given food en route.
“We don’t want to lose our benefits, the houses, the social programs, the bonuses,” he said. “No matter the difficulties caused by this economic war, we’re with the government and know Maduro will be able to overcome all of it.”
Others felt compelled to turn out, seeing support for Maduro as the only way to guarantee state jobs or services.
Josefina Guerra, a 23-year-old law student, said she attended the event because she’s applying to be a public school teacher, and said she believes the only way to land a job is to show support and vote for Maduro.
“They provided transportation and gave us a sandwich for breakfast,” she said. “So I came. But look, we’re not doing well. We haven’t had running water this whole year, we can’t afford food. Oh and transportation is terrible” she said.
“Am I hoping the president will use another term to bring change? Yes. I have to, for my career.”
Rachelle Krygier contributed to this report.