The official August 12 start of Venezuela's presidential election campaign has opened a new phase in Washington's plans to destabilise the revolutionary government headed by socialist President Hugo Chavez.
Officially, the main opposition candidate in the December election is Manuel Rosales, the current governor of the state of Zulia. But the real showdown will be between the unfolding people's power revolution led by Chavez and the warmongers in the Bush administration, who will resist by any means a further blow to the already shaky empire of US imperialism. With polls showing Chavez a near certainty to win, his supporters have set themselves a bold goal â€” to secure 10 million votes, up from the nearly 5 million Chavez won last time he faced a ballot.
The US ruling elite fears the worst: a double victory for Venezuela's "Bolivarian revolution". Not only could a crushing victory in December deliver Chavez a further mandate to continue to beat back the corporations with his people-first policies, but Venezuela could be successful in obtaining a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council in October.
Having captured the hearts and minds of the world's oppressed, particularly after the country's strident opposition to Israel's wars on Lebanon and Palestine, a growing list of Latin American, Asian, African and Middle Eastern countries are pledging to support Venezuela's Security Council bid.
A victory would further weaken US attempts to isolate Venezuela internationally and hand the Bolivarian revolution a powerful platform from which to continue its denunciation of Washington's brutal policies and build a bloc of opposition aimed at breaking the hold of the world's rogue superpower over the Third World.
A showdown between Washington and Caracas is nothing new: the US backed a military coup against Chavez in April 2002, and a "bosses' strike" in December of that year aimed at crippling the economy and driving out Chavez.
The US also supported a referendum that would have recalled Chavez and forced a new election, and has backed accusations of electoral fraud.
As J. Michael Waller from the Center for Security Policy â€” an organisation with direct links to the Bush administration that counts among its members a who's who of former CIA and US government personnel â€” stated as far back as May 2005, the re-election of Chavez is something that the US elite must avoid.
He wrote that "the remaining hope on the calendar for a peaceful resolution to the ongoing threat is the Venezuelan presidential election of 2006 ...
Time is running out ... The Bolivarian regime in Caracas presents a clear and present danger to peace and democracy in the hemisphere. It must change.
It can change on its own, or it can invite hemispheric forces with the help of Venezuela's broad democratic opposition, to impose the changes. Either way U.S. strategy must be to help Venezuela accomplish peaceful change by next year."
Despite having widely publicised the scheduling of primary elections in order to select the best candidate to challenge Chavez, it seemed that overnight the majority of the Venezuelan opposition fell in behind the candidature of Rosales. The two candidates who until then had seemed the most likely to run suddenly dropped out of the race.
The US-funded so-called non-government organisation Sumate, which was key to the campaign to allege fraud in the recall referendum and last December's National Assembly elections, quickly dropped all talks of a primary in order to back Rosales's bid.
Rosales had been hesitant to run, because he would have had to resign his position as governor â€” one of only two out of 24 governorships that the opposition controls â€” and even he knew he wasn't going to win against Chavez.
The choice of Rosales may reveal what the US is planning. Rosales has been a firm advocate of "autonomy" for Zulia, spearheading a move to separate the oil-rich state from the rest of Venezuela. Bordering Colombia, Zulia has historically had a strong sense of regional identity. Several times since the 1820s, there have been moves by the oil elites to push for the independence of Zulia in order to grab control of 40% of Venezuela's oil.
By playing on this, along with running welfare missions very similar to the national government's own social missions, Rosales has been able to gain a high level of support in Zulia.
Rosales has constantly campaigned on the issue, and has called for a referendum. An article by respected Venezuelan historian and journalist Luis Britto Garcia noted that in Zulia, "printed T-shirts present maps with an Independent Republic of Zulia, whilst articles from the press and webpages pour out calls for 'autonomy', 'sovereignty' and 'independence' which the governor Manuel Rosales himself reiterates, to the point of absurdity, as he during the January 28 celebrations of the Day of Zuliandity".
Garcia wrote that in May this year the US ambassador to Venezuela, William Brownfield, declared in Maracaibo, Zulia's capital: "Twenty-five years ago I lived for two years in the Independent and Eastern Republic of Zulia." The ambassador has made numerous visits to Zulia.
Although claiming to be independent from the US, Rosales' history proves otherwise. He was the only governor to sign the infamous "Carmona Decree", issued after Chavez was briefly deposed during the April 2002 coup. The decree dissolved the National Assembly and suspended the attorney-general, the ombudsman, and the governors and mayors elected during Chavez's presidency. Rosales signed as a "representative of the state governors".
Rosales's party, A New Time, was one of the last opposition parties to pull out of last year's National Assembly elections. It had initially argued against abstention, knowing that it had a real possibility of winning seats in Zulia. But in the end, it agreed to forego running in order to side with Washington's preferred plan of abstaining in an attempt to delegitimise the elections.
The fact that the US-funded Sumate group, along with the US-funded political parties of the right, have all dropped out of the presidential race to support a candidate who time and time again has exposed himself to be nothing more than a puppet of Washington, lends credence to the argument that the real campaign manager of the opposition is the US empire.
Zulian historian Carlos Morales Manssur pointed out in a February 26 Prensa Latina article that the US has much to gain from an independent Zulia:
"Washington would ... obtain control of the oil resources of Lake Maracaibo and could establish an important base of Plan Colombia [the US-funded war against left-wing guerrillas in Colombia], all at the expense of a government which it dislikes."
Well-known Venezuelan activist and writer Martin Guedez argued in an article posted on Aporrea.org on August 10 that a plan is underway similar to the opposition's campaign around the August 2004 recall referendum, when it hoped to create chaos on the back of claims of fraud by the government.
Guedez argues that "the culmination point will be the morning of December 4 .. this time supported by real votes that the candidate Rosales will obtain in Zulia".
The plan will be for the "winner" of one state to claim that he will not accept the "fraud" committed in the rest of Venezuela and mobilise regionalist sentiments, declaring himself the president-elect of the "Autonomous State of Zulia".
A dangerous situation
It is possible that such a string of events could be used to generate violence, and "justification" for US military intervention. Already, Zulia is home to a large number of right-wing Colombian paramilitaries who have assassinated numerous peasant leaders and been implicated in destabilisation plans.
On August 23, a convoy of 20 trucks supposedly carrying diplomatic and personal effects for the US diplomatic mission in Venezuela was intercepted and discovered to be smuggling detonators and cables used in explosives.
Only days before, four prisoners â€” some of them linked to Colombian paramilitaries â€” who had been involved in attempts to overthrow the government escaped jail.
The campaign outside Venezuela has also begun. Victor Ego Ducrot revealed in an August 24 Mercosur Journalist Agency article that the CIA had put in train a strong anti-Chavez media campaign.
Beginning with the aid of the New York Times, which ran an article by Simon Romero linking Venezuela and Cuba to Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program, the article was reprinted in a string of important conservative papers in Latin America.
A number of journalists told Ducrot that they had been contacted by US "diplomats" with offers of bribes as part of a systematic campaign of disinformation run by the CIA. The US recently established a special mission to deal with Venezuela.
In response, the revolutionary forces are organising themselves. Chavez has, as he puts it, "unleashed the Bolivarian hurricane", in order to obtain the conscious vote of 10 million Venezuelans in defence of the revolution and its ideals.
To do so, the "Miranda Command" has been established at the national level and throughout the country, aiming to organise more than 200,000 people on a polling-booth-by-polling-booth basis. Like for the recall referendum, each polling booth will have 10 people assigned, whose role is to political convince 10 other people to not just vote for Chavez, but to integrate themselves into the revolutionary process and deepen it.
Sectoral teams have also been organised to promote thorough discussions through permanent assemblies of workers, campesinos (peasants), women, business owners and other groups.
A specific challenge will be the revolution's relative weakness in Zulia, which both Garcia and Guedez put down to mistakes by the revolutionary forces, including divisions based on personalities and clientelism, as well as the imposition from above of unknown candidates in regional elections, as opposed to the popular movements selecting real leaders from below.