“It’s new evidence for a destabilization plan that North American imperialism, through the fascist government of George W. Bush, is carrying out in our country to torpedo and sabotage the revolutionary process.”

Oscar Figuera, general secretary of the Venezuelan Communist Party and a National Assembly delegate, was referring to a new secessionist movement in Zulia, the northwestern Venezuelan state where 40 percent of the nation’s oil reserves are located.

It’s the latest in a series of extraordinary counterrevolutionary actions spanning several years that includes a coup attempt, a strike against the state-owned oil company and a boycott of parliamentary elections.

On March 5 the Caracas daily El Nacional reported on plans of the Zulian group Our Own Path to initiate a plebiscite there on Oct. 24. Voters would vote on a “statute on autonomy” to “guarantee their individual rights and their own free enterprise economic system.”

Responding within hours on television, President Hugo Chávez accused the U.S. government of plotting “to take control of the great oil wealth there … and break the country into pieces.”

“North American imperialists are reverting to old ways with a lunatic, proxy fifth column with a mentality that is programmed, colonized and traitorous,” he said.

The separatists reportedly have ties with paramilitaries in Colombia, adjacent to Zulia.

Chávez recalled that separatism is a recurring theme in Zulian politics, beginning with the era of Simon Bolivar. A British observer noted that secessionists and their U.S. backers devised plans in 1935 to convert Zulia into a U.S. dependency.

Attorney General Isaias Rodriguez reported on a criminal investigation of the secessionist movement but admitted that his department lacks hard evidence of U.S. involvement. Homeland for All, a left political party, organized demonstrations outside Rodriguez’s office on March 7 in favor of stepped-up investigations. Rodriguez later announced the appointment of a judge and hinted at “other action in addition to a criminal investigation.”

Freddy Bernal, president of the Association of Bolivarian Mayors of Venezuela, has called for a national mobilization against the separatists. On March 7, National Assembly President Nicolas Maduro complained to reporters of “the conspiratorial silence of the Venezuelan opposition [to Chávez]. … With this silence, they are confirming their complicity.”

Zulian Gov. Manuel Rosales is one of only two state governors who oppose Chávez. Giancarlo di Martino, mayor of Maracaibo, the state capital, accuses Rosales of secessionist leanings. William Lara, national coordinator of Chávez’s political party, claims that Rosales is a confidant of U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield, the two of them meeting 17 times last year, according to one source. Reportedly Rosales crosses the border to meet with Colombian paramilitaries.

A multimillion-dollar publicity campaign for the separatist plebiscite is under way, its onset timed with the reopening of the U.S. Consulate in Maracaibo after years of inactivity.

According to one report, NATO and U.S. commanders staged a war game invasion of Venezuela in Madrid five years ago. “Operation Balboa,” as it was called, was situated in Zulia.

Spokespersons for Our Own Path call for Zulian autonomy and “liberal capitalism.” They envision a president and senate instead of governor and state legislature. Their model for Venezuela and Zulia is China and Hong Kong: “one country, two systems.” They look admiringly upon Taiwan and Singapore.

The parallel situation of separatist agitation riling the eastern Bolivian state of Santa Cruz, rich in natural gas, comes to mind.

Alberto Mansueti, one of the secessionist leaders, explains, “What we want is a statute … that will allow us to move from socialism to free market norms.” Secessionist ideologue Néstor Suárez argues that Zulians “instinctively reject and resist against socialism” of any variety.

Meanwhile, 500,000 civilian reservists in Venezuela will soon embark upon a four-month weekend training course that emphasizes tactics for “asymmetric war,” the term military planners apply to defense against a powerful foreign force. Chávez predicted on March 5 that “If someday a group of invaders comes looking for me, they will never take me alive.”

Communist leader Figuera condemned attempts “to split the country, converting this region into a beachhead for fratricidal confrontations among Venezuelans, to create international conditions that provide justification for the gringo invasion plan for Venezuela.” His party calls for “the broadest possible national mobilization. … The Venezuelan people are not disposed to accept any action that threatens the integrity of the national territory.”