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The world according to Hugo Chavez

Saturday, 22 July 2006 - 8:50pm IST

While Cuba continues to receive top billing among US security concerns, Washington's new irritant-in-chief is Venezuela or its President, says Ashish Ray.

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Last week, the Venezuelan Foreign Minister, Ale Rodriguez Araqre  attended the Caribbean Community and Common Market heads of government meeting in St Kitts and Nevis to garner support for his country’s election from South America as a non-permanent member of the UNSC. Argentina’s term expires this year and Peru’s in 2007. The US is determined to defeat Caracas’s candidature.


While communist Cuba continues to receive top billing among the US administration’s security concerns — even discussed on a day when America was more perturbed about North Korea’s missile launches a few hours earlier — Washington’s new irritant-in-chief is oil-rich, left-leaning Venezuela or more particularly its President, Hugo Chavez. “Hitler would be like a suckling baby next to George W. Bush,” he remarked following the US occupation of Iraq. Contemporaneously, he has described Robert Mugabe as a “freedom-fighter”, defended Saddam Hussein and, of course, hailed Fidel Castro as his mentor. Besides, he is seeking to build alliances with Iran and North Korea (parts of Bush’s “axis of evil”) and was, in fact, among a minority of nations who supported the former’s nuclear programme at the International Atomic Energy Agency earlier this year.


It would, however, be a mistake to label Chavez a left loony. Venezuela’s influence arising out of its enormous oil wealth has made him a growing threat to US hegemony in Latin America. After nationalising energy resources, he has invested an estimated $16-27 billion in them since entering office in 1998. This easily exceeds the US spending of $13 billion in the same area. Venezuela helped Argentina pay off its $2.3 billion debt to the IMF, an organisation despised in South America for thrusting neo-liberal economic policies upon it.


His largesse includes giving oil worth $1 billion a year to Cuba as well as fuel on favourable terms to other Caribbean countries, not to mention extending aid to impoverished African countries. Chavez’s generosity has even enveloped the US, where he provides heating oil at 40 per cent discount to some of the poorest households in New York.


With other parts of South America swinging to the left, Chavez’s brand of anti-Americanism, anti-globalisation, nationalism and increased state control of the  economy are finding takers. In Peru, Alan Perez, a social democrat backed by Chavez was elected President recently. Only Brazil continues to be unimpressed with Chavez.


His relations with the Washington soured in 2002 after he accused it of backing a failed “coup” against him. In an earlier era, the US’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) would probably have seriously contemplated taking him out! (In 1973, the CIA sponsored the violent overthrow of Salvador Allende, then Chile’s socialist President.) 12 percent of America’s oil supplies emanate from Venezuela. This is Chavez’s weapon. He frequently threatens to cut off such exports.


Chavez’s popularity among the masses stems from his accusation that the US is plotting to invade Venezuela. The Bush government, naturally, denies this. However, the US Secretary of States, Condoleezza Rice has spoken of an “inoculation strategy”, which could well be interpreted as covert CIA operations. Chavez responded by blowing a kiss at Rice, adding: “Don’t mess with me, girl.”


But Chavez’s policy of international engagement pivoting around his energy wealth may have neglected the pressing needs of his own country. Venezuela’s economic growth has been relatively pedestrian and the numbers of its people still living in abject poverty remain largely unaltered. And, while opposition political parties exist, they do not figure in the National Assembly after they boycotted elections last year following allegations of official fraud.


Presidential elections are due in December. A couple of Chavez’s opponents have indicated they will run, subject to freedom and fairness being observed. It would assist in the incumbent gaining wider acceptance if he ensured this occurs. Declaring him President “indefinitely”— as he said in May — will not help.


If the US has lost some of its goodwill in South America it’s because Bush, after stating this continent was his top priority after being elected in 2000, forgot about it after the 11 September attacks. Even traditional and potential allies have thus been alienated.


It will be intriguing to monitor the developing tussle over Venezuela’s ambitions to get elected to the UNSC.


The writer is a commentator on international affairs

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