Trouble in the Pipeline

Washington doesn’t like Hugo Chavez. Too bad he’s sitting on 13 percent of the U.S.’s oil.

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George W. Bush and Hugo Chavez are political and ideological enemies, but they have at least two things in common: they both have large numbers of people clamoring to have them booted from office; and they’re both, in a sense, oil men.

But oil, of course, is more of an irritant than a bond between the two men. Venezuela accounts for about 13 percent of the United States’ supply, which means each country needs the other. It’s not clear if the U.S. is interfering in Venezuelan politics to hasten Chavez’s end, but it would make sense. Bush would like to see Chavez gone and stability restored.

Chavez went theatrical over the weekend, vowing to wage a “100-year war” on Washington and cut off oil supplies if the United States tries to meddle in Venezuelan politics.

Is the Cold War returning to the “US backyard,” as London’s
Guardian suggests?

In Venezuela’s largest peaceful demonstration last weekend, some
half-million marchers protested what they view as an illegal rule
change to stall the president’s opposition. Foes of Chavez, having
crusaded to depose him for years, collected some three million
signatures calling for a fresh election, but the government
is demanding proof that one-third of the roster’s names are valid
voters, a logistically impossible task.

The outcome, likely to come soon in Venezuela following last
week’s violence that claimed at least eight lives, is certain to send
ripples through the world’s economy and affect the U.S. presidential

The Washington Post
believes that Chavez is causing trouble:

Mr. Chavez, who has built a strong alliance with
Cuba’s Fidel Castro and imported thousands of Cuban personnel,
appears eager for a domestic and international

Too bad for the U.S. Douglas MacKinnon, former press secretary to Bob Dole
writes in Petroleum World :

While Haiti is indeed a headache for our nation, the
coming civil war in Venezuela will have a disastrous impact on our
national security and way of life.

Sadly for the United States, President Hugo Chavez is much more
than a madman who has his hand on the spigot of much needed oil.

Meanwhile, the Financial Times advises :

Venezuela is not Haiti and it would be unrealistic for the
opposition to expect US marines to come to their rescue. Mr Chavez
can count on the support of the armed forces. His country’s
institutions have been weakened but are intact and the rise in the
oil price – which reached a post-Iraq-war high on Monday – has buoyed
his country’s economic prospects.

Venezuela’s trading power ebbs and flows with the demand for oil. The
country thrived during the global oil shortage in of the 1970s but
slumped a decade later when prices fell. Economic troubles in part
drove Chavez temporarily from office in a 2002 coup backed by the
U.S., which didn’t help relations. Venezuela and other OPEC
nations decided to limit their oil supply by April, which experts
warn could hike up gasoline costs to three dollars per gallon by the

While this might boost the economy in Venezuela, it’s bad news for
American wallets, and for Bush, who just finished dealing with turmoil
in Haiti and is fending off an image as the president who lost more
jobs than Herbert Hoover.

Bush and South American business leaders mistrust Chavez for
upsetting markets through radical stabs at land and oil industry
reforms. Chavez pushed such laws, including one to let the
government seize “unproductive” farmland and estates, claiming they
would help the poor.

Stephen Johnson of the Heritage Foundation describes the result in the National Review:

Instead, Chavez had the constitution rewritten to
insure [sic; should be “ensure”] his stay in power and bribed corrupt
military officers to insure [sic] loyalty. Venezuela now rivals Haiti
in poverty and underemployment. While the country’s former middle
class does not want to revisit past failures, few want to see
Venezuela turned into a Haitian slum or a Cuban-style workers’
paradise. But that seems to be the president’s

Investigative reporter Greg Palast described two years ago the demographic

at play:

Race and class. Whatever else you hear about
Venezuela, this is the story in a single frame. Like apartheid-riven
South Africa, the whites, 20 percent of the population, have the
nation’s wealth under lock and key. The Rich Fifth have command of
the oil wealth, the best jobs, the English language lessons, the
imported clothes, the vacations in Miami, the plantations.

That is, until Hugo Chavez came along.

Now the brown people, like community activist Lara-and President
Chavez himself-have a piece of the action. “Negro y indio,” Chavez
calls himself. Black and Indian. And the blondes don’t like

Chavez’s supposed championing of indigenous rights clashes with
censorship of TV coverage of public violence as well as accusations
of police brutality. The president suspended the right to bear arms Friday over
escalating battles in the street.

Venezuela’s U.N. Ambassador Milos Alcalay resigned Thursday from a
30-year diplomatic career to protest the National Electoral Council’s
recount. He blasted Chavez for failing to foster democracy and human
rights, and for alienating the world with an inflammatory foreign
policy (accusations that might also sound familiar to Bush.).

Marchers demanded Thursday that police release hundreds of people
detained in protests, including opposition politician Carlos Melo and
the vice president of the stock exchange. Chavez’s top rival,
Democratic Action party leader Eva Carrizo, died from gunfire during
protests against the administration and at least 10 others perished
in demonstrations since last week.

Americans are used to seeing headlines of rotating leadership and
violent protests in South American countries, but Bush’s management
of the next steps in Venezuela are a crucial test of his foreign
policy mettle.

His administration has carefully eyed the rise of populist
movements in South America, frowning on Chavez and carefully eyeing
Brazil’s charismatic Socialist President “Lula” (Luiz Inacio Lula da
Silva) for any sign that their attempts to reshift power might
disrupt international trade.

U.S. leaders nervously saw Chavez in 2000 make the first trip to
Iraq by a world leader since the Gulf War. By 2002, America scrapped
exchange rate controls for Venezuela and its economy took a dive.
Several months later, civil unrest triggered a coup that temporarily
removed Chavez from power.

Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the D.C.-based Center for Economic
and Policy Research, wrote for Alternet in 2002:

Prior to the coup on April 11, the U.S. National
Endowment for Democracy stepped up its funding to opposition groups,
including money funneled through the International Republican
Institute. The latter’s funding multiplied more than sixfold, to
$340,000 in 2001.

But if history is any guide, overt funding from Washington will
turn out to be the tip of the iceberg. This was the case in Haiti,
Nicaragua, Chile and other countries where Washington has sought
“regime change” because our leaders didn’t agree with the voters’
choice at the polls.

Such claims come without direct proof, but not out of the blue.
For more than a third of the last century, Venezuela was a
dictatorship and the world’s leading oil producer. In the years
following World War II, a coup toppled the nation’s first
democratically elected president and the United States helped to
install the new regime.

Elliott Gotkine of the BBC imagines what might happen if Venezuela allows a
recall vote. Either the vice-president will take over, “remote
control by President Chavez, the opposition fears,” or his opponents
will have to find a better candidate:

The only force uniting the opposition here is hatred of Hugo
Chavez. And once he’s out of office, his opponents could fall foul to
their own internal divisions.

Stephen Johnson in the conservative National Review urged the United States not to ” shrink from
challenging this bully:”

They should bring his undemocratic actions before the
Organization of American States for debate, freeze accounts of
law-breaking Venezuelan officials, and negotiate alternate petroleum
supply arrangements with other countries. If they don’t, Chavez will
have carte blanche to consolidate his authoritarian rule and
destabilize other governments and markets in the

However, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told Reuters, “We can’t spend our time running
around the world and the hemisphere saving people who botched their
chance at leadership.”

Enrigue Rangel of the San Antonio Express-News urges the United States to seek help:

Whether Washington likes to admit it or not, the
United States needs help from the international community in dealing
with Chavez. The Bush administration has no one to blame but itself.
Instead of working behind the scenes diplomatically, the White House
has continuously sided with his opponents and lost its moral
authority to broker a solution to Venezuela’s conflict.

Moreover, a respected career diplomat, not one of the ideologues
running the State Department’s Western Hemisphere affairs bureau,
needs to bluntly remind the administration that Latin America is not
what it used to be – a region ruled by Washington-backed strongmen.


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