July 24th, 2005
|09:42 am - It's about the $$ oil $$, stupid (which means it's really about global power positioning)|
Venezuela's demand to U.S.: 'respect'
- by Monte Reel, Washington Post; Sunday, July 24, 2005
(as published in the San Francisco Chronicle p. A-3)
Caracas , Venezuela -- After the rumble of tanks died down and the last soldier high- stepped past the pavilion, President Hugo Chavez told the thousands of people attending Venezuela's Independence Day parade July 5 that no invading army could match the fighting force that had just marched by, "armed to the teeth."
The hypothetical invasion he invoked was patently clear: Two days before, Chavez had announced the discovery of evidence that the United States had drawn up blueprints to invade Venezuela, a plan he said was code-named "Operation Balboa."
American officials dismissed the claim as fiction, just as they have denied Chavez's repeated assertions that the CIA is trying to assassinate him, or that the Bush administration was behind a military coup that briefly toppled his government in April 2002.
There is little doubt, however, that relations between Venezuela and the United States, strained for years, are plunging to new lows.
Chavez has always been outspoken in condemning what he calls "U.S. imperialism," mocking President Bush as "Mr. Danger" and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as "Mr. War." Nevertheless, Venezuelan officials insist his recent threats to sever ties with Washington -- thereby suspending the export of 1.5 million barrels of oil per day -- are more than the rhetoric of a populist rallying domestic support.
"When the president talks, it is not a joke," said Mary Pili Hernandez, a senior Foreign Ministry official. "The only country Venezuela has bad relations with is the United States; with all other countries, we have good or very good relations. But with just one word, the U.S. could resolve all of the problems. That word is 'respect.' "
Chavez asserts that the 21st century equivalent of the Cold War is the industrial world's thirst for oil -- and its attempts to manipulate weaker governments to secure it. Oil-rich Venezuela sells 60 to 65 percent of its crude oil to the United States, making it the fourth-largest supplier to the U. S. market. This year, near-record oil prices have helped Chavez finance a variety of social programs that he pledges will make Venezuela more independent of American influence.
Observers say the oil revenue also has emboldened Chavez's foreign policy strategy. He recently signed oil agreements with Argentina, Brazil and his Caribbean neighbors and has begun to strengthen ties with China through oil accords.
Rafael Quiroz, an oil industry analyst in Caracas, said the Chavez government believes the conflict between developing countries endowed with such natural resources and nations with high demands will only intensify in coming years. Chavez would like to precipitate that conflict, Quiroz said.
"I think he's correct to try to speed up that kind of confrontation, because the developing world -- where 85 percent of world reserves are -- will stand in a better place after that," Quiroz said. "Every day, it is more apparent that oil is fundamental for Venezuela in its international relations, and it is the main ingredient Chavez uses to form strategic alliances."
Venezuela could find other buyers for oil, and the United States could find other suppliers, but both have sound financial incentives to continue their trade arrangement.
If Venezuela were to cut supplies, the United States probably would have to pay more to fill the gap, driving up domestic fuel prices. Venezuela would suffer because of higher costs for shipping and infrastructure, according to U. S. officials. Five refineries in the United States are tooled specifically to process Venezuela's variety of heavy crude oil; no other countries are similarly equipped, officials said.
"It would be a disruption, but at the end of the day, no one country can control the international oil market," said William Brownfield, the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela.
American officials also have complained about strains in the traditionally cooperative U.S.-Venezuelan campaign against drug trafficking. Earlier this year, the Venezuelan National Guard seized equipment from neighboring Colombia's anti-drug task force, which works closely with the United States. And last month, the head of Venezuela's drug-fighting squad -- whom international drug agents considered very supportive -- was fired.
Venezuelan authorities bristle at suggestions that they are being uncooperative in law enforcement. They argue that the U.S. government follows a double standard, pointing in particular to the case of Luis Posada Carriles, a former CIA operative who participated in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961. A naturalized Venezuelan citizen now in a Texas prison on immigration charges, Posada, 77, has been accused of bombing a Cuban airliner in 1976, killing all 73 aboard. He was arrested in Venezuela on terrorism charges but escaped from prison in 1985.
After becoming embroiled in a network run by former White House aide Oliver North to smuggle weapons to anti-government rebels in Nicaragua, and an alleged assassination attempt against Cuban President Fidel Castro for which he was imprisoned in Panama, Posada was spotted in Miami earlier this year. U. S. officials indicated they were unaware of his whereabouts, but in May, after he was interviewed by the Miami Herald, he was arrested and sent to a detention facility in El Paso, Texas.
Now, Posada is seeking asylum to protect him from a Venezuelan extradition request. He faces a hearing in August.
The Posada case is as complex as a spy novel, but Venezuelan authorities say it boils down to this: If the United States is serious about prosecuting the war on terrorism, it should extradite Posada -- whom they compare to Osama bin Laden -- to face justice in the airliner bombing.
"If you have a president who speaks all the time about the importance of fighting terrorism," said Hernandez, the Foreign Ministry official, "we don't understand" the U.S. reluctance to extradite Posada. "The main reason to do it is to give justice to the families of the 73 people who died."
Posada's attorneys assert that he essentially was acquitted twice -- first by a Venezuelan military court, then by a civilian court that failed to convict him. His attorney in Venezuela, a former intelligence officer named Joaquin Chaffardet, was indicted but never convicted for allegedly organizing Posada's prison break.
"I absolutely justify that decision," Chaffardet said of Posada's escape, adding that he is convinced Posada could never get a fair trial in Venezuela. "It is not justice to have someone waiting nine years for a trial after being acquitted already."
Venezuelan authorities say the civil case against Posada was still proceeding when he escaped. Posada's defenders insist the Venezuelan extradition request has nothing to do with bringing a terrorist to justice; they say Chavez is simply using the case as a tool against the United States.
U.S. officials say relations between the two countries is tainted with so much bad blood that no simple solution is likely to wash it away.
"We are going to constantly be in his cross-hairs," one senior U.S. official said of Chavez. "We're talking about a man who has gone through all of his adult life in confrontation mode. It's not a question that we will have a negative relationship with him."