The approval of autonomy by voters in Bolivia’s Santa Cruz department on May 4 stimulated legislators from the right wing New Time Party in Venezuela’s oil rich Zulia state to propose a commission to study the feasibility of separate status there.

Broadcasting to the nation on his weekly television program, President Hugo Chavez warned that separatist agitation could spread beyond Zulia to other western border states. He likened the prospect of a unified Venezuelan separatist movement to its counterpart active in the “half moon” area of eastern Bolivia. That’s the location of Santa Cruz and three other departments.

Characterizing regional and local elections scheduled in November as “the most important in Venezuelan history,” Chavez invoked unity as a “vaccine” against separatism. He has condemned the United States for “articulating, planning, financing, and promoting this divisive, secessionist, and counter revolutionary process.” The CIA, he suggests, is active in promoting separatist referenda.

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa agrees with Chavez. “What is happening in Bolivia is not an isolated development,” he stated. Correa denounced “foreign countries that want to destabilize the region [by] financing groups to create problems for progressive governments” and “Balkanize” Latin America. He cited the 2006 founding in Guayaquil, Ecuador of an International Confederation for Regional Freedom and Autonomy.

President Chavez has implicated the organization and its wealthy backers in separatist schemes throughout Latin America. “They are directing a secessionist crusade in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Guatemala [and] Venezuela” — financed, he adds, in North America. In Venezuela, the group Zulia’s Own Course pioneered separatism in that state. After legislators called for an autonomy commission, spokesperson Alberto Mansueti told reporters, “We want liberalism, the right to compete and the duty to withstand competition.” A separate Zulia would privatize production, end trade barriers, lower taxes and participate in international markets.

Zulia’s Governor Manuel Rosales, long a leader of the autonomy cause, opposed President Chavez in the 2006 presidential elections, losing decisively as the candidate of a rightwing electoral alliance. He had been a confidante of U.S. ambassador William Brownfield before Brownfield’s transfer to the U.S. embassy in Colombia. Zulia is known in U.S. defense circles as the site of a mock invasion of Venezuela staged during NATO military exercises in 2001.

As defense against separatist dissent, Chavez can rely on continuing overall public approval. A national poll conducted in late May by the Venezuelan Data Analysis Institute showed 68.8 percent of Venezuelans holding a positive view of his presidency with 28.2 percent regarding it negatively. Almost half of those polled held a more favorable view of Chavez this year than last; 37.2 percent thought worse of him.

Retired General Alberto Müller Rojas, currently vice president of the Unified Venezuelan Socialist Party, casts separatists as “the most extremist and radical sectors of the Venezuelan Right.” He suggested the possibility of prosecuting them for treason or harm to Venezuelan stability.