August 13, 2004

IN VENEZUELAN REFERENDUM, U.S. MAY ROOT FOR CHAVEZ

By Francisco José Moreno
PACIFIC NEWS SERVICE

President Hugo Chávez seems almost certain to win the recall referendum called for this coming Sunday in Venezuela.

Chávez’s lead in nonpartisan polls is increasing; his government is awash in oil money that is being put into social projects; more than a million new voters from traditionally marginalized segments of the population have been registered; and, most important, the U.S. government has begun to soften its public stance toward Chavez.

A telling sign of the situation is the meeting that Venezuela’s media magnate Gustavo Cisneros and President Chávez held last month. Cisneros has been the main power behind the relentless communications campaign against the president; the conspirators that deposed Chávez for two days in April 2002 met at Cisneros’ home before going over to overthrow the government. He has been the embodiment of anti-government feelings in Venezuela. His meeting with Chávez, brokered by Jimmy Carter, was an acknowledgment of failure and an effort to protect his vast interests in the country. It was a psychological blow to the opposition.

Carlos Andrés Pérez, the former Venezuelan president who was removed from office for corruption in 1993 and convicted of mismanaging $17 million of government money, has just issued a statement in Miami accepting that Chávez will win the recall vote on August 15, and calling for his assassination. “He must be killed like a dog,” Pérez said of the Venezuela president. Perez, like Cisneros, knows which way the wind is blowing.

The softening of the American position toward Chávez was reported in detail recently by the Financial Times of London. It requires explanation, however, because Wash-ington’s policy for Venezuela has been running on two tracks, not one.

The United States has two primary interests in Venezuela: oil, and the containment of the war in next-door Colombia.

Venezuela supplies the United States with approximately 1.5 million barrels of oil a day. It is the fourth largest foreign supplier of the American energy market after Saudi Arabia, Canada and Mexico. In May 2001, Vice President Dick Cheney authored a report of the National Energy Policy Group on U.S. oil needs in the next 25 years and identified Venezuela as a critical energy source. Since then, the uncertainties of the available oil supply, for political as well as technical reasons, have only risen.

Washington’s second concern is to contain the Colombian conflict, where guerrillas, right-wing par-amilitaries, drug dealers and a beleaguered and corrupt army compete for land, money and power. Political instability in Venezuela, which shares a long and open border with Colombia, has the potential to significantly increase the intensity and scope of the struggle in its neighbor’s territory. Political necessity mandates that American administrations be able to claim success in the war against drugs while avoiding direct military entanglement. A deterioration of the situation in Colombia would force the United States to pour more money and political capital, even troops, into that country.

Oil and Colombia underlie the American desire for stability in Venezuela. The Chávez administration has not been oblivious to this. The supply of oil to America has never been threatened; the agent representing the Venezuelan government in the sale of oil to the U.S. strategic reserve is Jack Kemp, 1996 vice-presidential running mate of Bob Dole and distinguished member of the Republican Party’s conservative leadership. In addition, the Venezuela government has kept its hands out of the Colombian conflict.

Washington has been faced with two less-than-ideal options concerning Venezuela: 1) live with a rhetorical enemy who guarantees the supply of oil and keeps clear of Colombian involvement; or 2) encourage the return to power of the divided and corrupt politicians who made the present situation possible and who, having forced Chávez out of office, would in all probability have to deal with an unstable internal situation that in turn could jeopardize the oil supply and spill into Colombia.

The ambivalence of the U.S. position with regard to Venezuela has been manifest in the anti-Chavez pronouncements of Otto Reich and Roger Noriega, former and present assistant secretaries of state for inter-American affairs, and of Secretary of State Colin Powell. On the other hand, the work of Jack Kemp and the assessment of Venezuela’s oil importance by Dick Cheney represent a pragmatic willingness within the present administration to accept Chávez as the lesser of two evils.

The present softening of the formal Washington position on Chávez is the reconciliation of what has been a double track approach. Ironically, a Chávez victory may be beneficial to American policymakers, who may then enjoy more freedom to pursue U.S. interests without being tied down to the defense of an inept and potentially troublesome local Venezuelan opposition.

Francisco Jose Moreno is president of Strategic Assessments Institute, a Los Angeles-based consulting firm, and former vice president of Philip Morris International for Iberia and Latin America.

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