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A long cloud of black smoke rises slowly above the bright orange flame of an oil rig along the coast of Lake Maracaibo, source of one of the largest oil deposits on the American continent and treasure trove of the state of Zulia that will be hotly contested during this weekend’s regional elections in Venezuela.

At stake in the western state of Zulia are the country’s oil fields, located at the bottom of the world’s second oldest lake. With Zulia’s oil production at more than 1 million barrels a day, the current contenders for governorship, incumbent Manuel Rosales and contender Alberto Gutierrez, are in one of the most important regional contests in the country.

Rosales staunchly opposes the Bolivarian revolution of President Hugo Chavez and went so far to back a coup against Chavez, something Chavez will not let the public forget. In his last “Alo Presidente,” televised from the Zulia state capital of Maracaibo this past weekend, President Chavez took the opportunity to lash out against Rosales, calling him a “killer,” “traitor,” and “sell-out” for his participation in the April 2002 coup against his government and his intention to sell state companies to transnational corporations.

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Zulia governor Manuel Rosales Photo: Panorama Digital

Chavez televised a video of governor Rosales signing a decree by coup organizers that dissolved Chavez’s democratically elected government. “We need only remember April 12, 2002, when this humble servant [Chavez] was taken prisoner and the despotic government of Carmona Estanga was being installed...one could see in Miraflores [the presidential palace] the hand of Rosales in signing the decree of Carmona...that governor, a coup participant and traitor, should be in jail,” the President declared.

Even while Rosales, a former mayor of Maracaibo, is in staunch opposition against Chavez and his Bolivarian Revolution, he is quick to use the strengths of the national government’s social programs and has virtually duplicated those in health, education, and food security and added his own twist called “social reengineering” to deal with what he says is the real problem plaguing social services such as hospitals. “The problem of hospitals is not economic resources, but their administration, their management,” Rosales said in an interview with Maracaibo daily newspaper, “Panorama.” “We are talking about a change in the administration model,” Rosales said.

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Pro-Chavez candidate for Zulia governorship Alberto Gutierrez Photo: Panorama Digital

The pro-Chavez contender, Gutierrez, is an army general backed by President Chavez who is focusing on implementing the government’s 12 social programs in the state as well as infrastructure works that deal with fundamental problems faced by most Zulians, such as clean running water. Gutierrez’s greatest strength is undoubtedly the unwavering support of President Chavez. His weakness is that he is not a native Zulian and has worked only two years in a state where people have strong sense of statehood.

This is a weakness that could cost him the electoral race according to political science professor at the Bolivarian University of Venezuela in Zulia, Mabel Cuñarro.

“The political platforms of both candidates are very similar, but Gutierrez is not very well known here and there is a great possibility that people will vote for Rosales because they know him,” Cuñarro said.

Cuñarro said that even though Chavez continues to gain support across the country, the regional elections may not support this surge of support for the country’s president.

A recent poll advertised in Zulia daily newspaper, “Panorama”, claims that Gutierrez has 53.42% of the vote while Rosales is at 38.5%. The ad was placed by the Gutierrez political campaign and the poll was conducted by Buró Consulting. Meanwhile in another ad in the same newspaper, Rosales says he is leading in all polls with a 30 per cent lead.

Like the ads, word on the streets of Maracaibo and in the small towns of Zulia, is divided.

Manuel Gonzalez is a political activist working for the pro-Chavez camp in the state in Maracaibo. He sits in the passenger seat of an old beat-up 1973 Chevy cooperative taxi used as a bus in Maracaibo. He is in the middle of a debate with the driver about the upcoming electoral race. “We don’t want Gutierrez as candidate,” says Gonzalez. “My wife and I both work for Gutierrez and we don’t see a future for him” he says. Gonzalez favors another candidate, Oscar Arias Cardenas, but the cab driver says that candidate was a former governor of Zulia who used to support Chavez but who now opposes him. “That’s something we will not forget,” he says.