CARACAS, Venezuela – President Hugo Chavez launched his campaign for a third straight term on Saturday, dismissing his opponents as pawns of a Washington plan to discredit the December election and destabilize Venezuela.
Punching his fist in the air, Chavez was greeted by throngs of supporters who formed a sea of red — the color of his political party — as he arrived at the electoral council's headquarters in downtown Caracas.
"I am the candidate of the revolution," Chavez said, "and without a doubt I am the candidate of the national majority, of those who continue transforming the country and saving it from the capitalist quagmire."
Chavez, who describes his government as a socialist revolution, faces a newly united opposition, with most rivals falling in behind a single candidate, the popular Zulia state governor Manuel Rosales. Also running as something of a wild card is a popular comedian, Benjamin Rausseo, better known in Venezuela as the "Count of Guacharo."
Chavez dismissed all the other candidates as tools of the U.S. government, which he frequently accuses of planning to invade. "All the candidates that until now have appeared are candidates of the right, of the counterrevolution and, I'd even say, of the U.S. empire," he said.
Accusing the opposition of an "imperialist plan" to boycott the election and undermine the electoral process, he warned that he was preparing a social and political "counterattack."
"You can be sure they'll regret it," he said, without elaborating. Chavez has previously said that if opposition parties boycott the vote, he would call a referendum on ending term limits — a move that could allow him to serve past 2012.
Government opponents accuse Chavez of becoming increasingly authoritarian while failing to fight deep-seated problems in the country such as corruption, crime and poverty.
Supporters, especially the nation's poor, see Chavez as a hero who has used the country's oil wealth to fund social initiatives such as subsidized supermarkets and health care and literacy programs.
Major opposition parties are backing Rosales, one of the few opposition politicians to be re-elected as Chavez allies swept state governorships and Venezuela's National Assembly. But polls suggest an easy win Dec. 3 for Chavez, who has the support of a clear majority of Venezuelans.
Chavez was elected in 1998 and again to a six-year term in 2000 after the country's constitution was changed in a popularly elected assembly. And while the current constitution bars more than two consecutive terms, the Supreme Court ruled Chavez could run again because his initial election came when a different constitution was in effect.
The former paratrooper has vowed to win 10 million votes in this country of 26 million and govern the world's fifth-largest oil exporter until 2013.