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"Terrorism" to get Venezuela's oil

The Bush administrations next target may just be Venezuela. President Hugo Chavez has been instrumental in the revival of OPEC, refuses the neoliberal economic policies pushed by Washington, raises taxes on multinational corporations, and redistributes land to poor peasants. In short: He has pursued the sort of policies that have always led the US to try to overthrow Latin American leaders in the past. The "War on Terrorism" may serve as the pretext.
"Terrorism" to get Venezuela's oil

By Sean Marquis

Dec. 5-- President George W. Bush's terror war has eyes for South America. The biggest reason: Venezuelan oil.

Figuring heavily into US energy policy is Venezuela, which supplies about 15% of US oil imports, the third largest supplier of oil to the US behind Canada and Saudi Arabia. Venezuela is the only Latin American member of the Arab-dominated Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

Venezuela exports 1.52 million barrels of oil to the US daily and has proven reserves of more than 76 billion barrels. Venezuela also has possibly hundreds of billions of barrels of harder to refine heavy oil, which is far more than proven reserves in the Middle East.

Venezuela's president, Hugo Chavez, has been instrumental in getting OPEC nations to institute production cuts to increase revenue.

Chavez's oil policy and his more recent stances on "free trade", have been causing tensions with Washington.

Chavez was also an early (and continued) opponent of Plan Colombia, a $1.3 billion, mostly military, anti-drug package to Colombia as part of the US "war on drugs".

Both right-wing and left-wing forces embroiled in Colombia's 40-year civil war, fund themselves through drug trafficking.

Drugs are not the only concern of Plan Colombia. In 1999, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the Clinton administration's anti-narcotics coordinator, argued that Plan Colombia was necessary to stabilize the region - partly because of Colombia's proximity to Venezuela and its oilfields.

Chavez has been in support of peace negotiations in Colombia, but pointedly against the military aspect of the US aid package, fearing a spread of the conflict to neighboring countries, including his own.

Chavez has also held several forums in Venezuela to discuss the pros and cons of Plan Colombia, even allowing members of Colombia's warring factions to address at least one such forum, much to the ire of Colombia and the US.

Three months ago, on Sept. 5, more fuel was added to the fire when Venezuelan defense minister Jose Vicente Rangel announced, after meeting with US ambassador to Venezuela Donna Hrinak, that his government will not renew a 50-year old bilateral military cooperation agreement with the US. Rangel said only that the 1951 agreement is out-of-date and that the Venezuelan government does not consider its renewal appropriate. Hrinak made no comments to the press.

At the meeting, Rangel and Hrinak also discussed a related matter: the Venezuelan government's request to the US military mission to vacate the offices which they have used for decades at the Venezuelan defense ministry headquarters at Fort Tiuna, as well as Navy and Air Force installations.

Fallout over FTAA

Last April Chavez, along with the heads of state of every nation in the western hemisphere - barring Cuba (which was not invited), signed on to the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) pact during the Summit of the Americas in Quebec.

The FTAA, if put into effect, would create the world's largest 'free trade zone'. It would encompass 34 nations of the western hemisphere, 800 million people and a potential market of between $12-19 trillion. From Alaska to Chile, labor, environmental and states' rights would all be subdued in favor of corporate rights.

Chavez though, signed with an asterisk next to his name (the only signatory to do so), denoting that though he agreed to the general goals of the pact, he had serious reservations about some of the specifics.

Since signing the FTAA pact, Chavez has been working in the last six months to create a South American trade zone, a "European Union of South America". He is convinced that the Andean Community of Venezuela, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil can gain negotiating muscle by putting their own regional economic integration ahead of the FTAA.

Venezuela insists, with Brazil, on strengthening the Mercosur trade agreement for a South American Common Market.

This trade bloc would then enter into FTAA negotiations as a group, giving them more bargaining power against heavyweights like the US and Canada. This is why Venezuela and Brazil would like to keep the start date of the FTAA at 2005 rather than 2003, as the US is pushing for.

Chavez is a proponent of such Third World unity to confront a unipolar world dominated by the United States.

In June, just three months after the Quebec Summit, President Chavez opened a summit of Andean nations by criticizing the proposed FTAA as a quick fix for the impoverished region.

Chavez warned that unless poor South American nations unite before joining the FTAA, they risk opening the door to multinational giants that will wipe out local businesses and eliminate jobs.

On Aug. 1 a debate was held in Venezuela's National Assembly, to discuss the FTAA.

Many speakers, echoing Chavez' doubts, presented the US-backed FTAA plan as a strategy by Washington to extend its economic and political dominance over Latin America. "It's nothing more than an attempt to destroy Latin America's integration efforts," said economist Francisco Mieres, adding the FTAA reflected what he called the "highly imperial policy" of President Bush.

Just the week before, Chavez repeated his view that Venezuelan entry to the FTAA was "an option, not a destiny."

Media Spin

As opposed to Colombia, there is no active conflict in Venezuela, no role the US currently plays. So one must be created. The first media rumblings that could link Venezuela to the US's "terror war" came quite early.

A warning signal went out in a Sept. 14 article by Inter-Press Service which said: "Venezuela... has been the recipient of waves of Arab immigration... Caracas is also in a unique situation because of its 'petroleum diplomacy', which has brought President Hugo Chávez closer to the countries Washington considers to be 'enemies', including Iraq, Iran and Libya".

Now that the US has declared an open-ended all-out war, having close ties to Washington's "enemies" and an Arab immigrant population (where one supposes the US can say al-Qaeda terror networks are hiding), is not a good position for any nation to be in.

The New York Times played it's hand against Venezuela on Oct. 17 with a page three article entitled, "Venezuela Waits for 'Revolution' to Bear Fruit".

The article was accompanied by a large photograph of the Venezuelan president in a red beret and military jacket, holding a child also wearing a beret.

The caption read: "President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and a youngster at a rally for education reforms in February in Caracas. Mr. Chavez's organization wears red berets. His support has fallen, from 75 to 56 percent, a poll shows."

In the Times' own words, "His [Chavez's] displays of friendship with leaders like presidents Fidel Castro of Cuba and Saddam Husssein of Iraq have also irritated the United States, though American policy toward Venezuela remains one of engagement, rather than exclusion."

The US 'excludes' Hussein with sanctions and bombs and Castro with a decades-long embargo and attempted assassinations. What will Chavez's fate be?

The Times adds, "Mr. Chavez still enjoys the support of most Venezuelans, several polls show. But unrest is a possibility. Some theorists and political experts suggest that even a coup is possible."

Suggesting the possibility of a coup is no idle threat. US foreign policy via the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and proxy forces has been quite bloody and lead to the overthrow of many legitimate governments including the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, by the President Reagan-backed Contras, and the overthrow and killing of President Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973 by CIA-backed General Augusto Pinochet.

The Times does not fail to mention oil: "Half of government operating revenues [are] generated from oil production that is largely overseen by the giant state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela. Venezuela, which has proven oil reserves of 76 billion barrels, depends on oil for 80 percent of export earnings, $29 billion last year."

With enough media spin, Chavez could become the leader of a "rogue state," who "harbors terrorists" and the US can have carte blanche to do as it pleases under the guise of the war on terrorism.

The media spin has been working against Chavez for some time. In an article on Apr. 23, the day after the signing of the FTAA in Quebec, The Toronto Globe and Mail theorized on the possibility of a coup in Venezuela and any affects that may have on the FTAA process.

Capitalist Unrest

In the wake of the enactment by presidential decree of a package of laws, including an agrarian reform law and a law increasing petroleum royalties, pro-capitalist opposition forces staged a provocative march in Caracas, Venezuela, on Nov. 22. The march ended in street clashes with pro-Chavez supporters and the police, who attacked the Chavez supporters.

Coup murmurings again made it into the media.

The day before the protests, Chavez held a meeting with military brass, which has issued statements in favor of Chávez's political program.

After the meeting, General Lucas Rincón, the inspector-in-chief of the armed forces, said, "The only coups are in the mind of a tiny group of oddballs wandering around out there".

What has spurred controversy over the past year and which appears to be fueling the clashes with some sectors of the business class is a new "Land Law" aimed at distributing plots to landless farmers, part of a package of four dozen laws decreed by Chávez under special powers he was granted by parliament.

Fedecamaras, a business federation which represents companies that generate 90 percent of Venezuela's non-oil revenues, has called on its members to close their doors Dec. 10 to protest the new package of laws.

Fedecamaras claims it wasn't consulted on the laws, especially those addressing land reform and foreign investment in the oil industry.

The new oil law would increase the royalties that transnational oil companies operating in Venezuela would have to pay the government by 10-15%, and in some cases increase the taxes the companies must pay as well.

The Venezuela-American Chamber of Commerce and Industries endorsed Fedecamaras' call to lock-out employees and shut down production. VenAmCham, as the chamber is known, is the country's largest association of foreign businesses, with more than 1,000 members, including oil and telecommunications companies.

Rafael Sandrea, president of the oil committee of Venamcham, said, "I think the government's message is they don't want [the multinationals]."

"We have a national policy for the development of the economy," said Tarek William Saab, chairman of the foreign relations committee of the National Assembly. "And that is to confront the neo-liberal system, where everything is in the name of private capital, and nothing is for the country."

Chávez said the lock-out threat "doesn't bother me at all,'' because he says government has the support of Venezuela's poor, who represent 80 percent of the country's 24 million people.

Historically the US has dealt harshly, economically and militarily, with Latin American nations which promote land reform (appropriating tracts of land and portioning them out to peasants and landless families): Guatemala in the 1950's, Chile in the 1970's, Nicaragua in the 1980's and Cuba since the 1960's. All on the pretense of protecting the United States and Capitalism from encroaching Communism and Socialism.

Terror war, word war

President Chavez has been an outspoken critic of the US "war on terrorism", furthering tensions between the US and Venezuela.

While Venezuela has cooperated with the US in its efforts (investigation, information, cutting off funding routes of possible terror groups, etc.), Chavez has been highly critical of the US bombing campaign in Afghanistan.

The most recent flare-up came after comments Chavez made on national television on Oct. 29 condemning civilian casualties caused by US bombs.

In a televised address, Chavez held up a photograph of women and children who had been killed or injured by US bombing raids and said, "This has no justification, just like the attacks in New York didn't either."

In statements released by the State Department in Washington and its embassy in Caracas, the US government rebutted Chavez's suggestion that military operations to destroy Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network were like fighting ''terror with more terror.''

"We reject this representation of the coalition's actions in Afghanistan,'' read the embassy statement. It was the clearest sign to date of Washington's growing irritation with Venezuelan criticisms of its diplomatic and military response to the Sept. 11 attacks.

After meeting with US Ambassador Donna Hrinak, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Luis Alfonso Davila said, "We reiterate our position of friendship and cooperation with the United States," but, he added, "We cannot, nor do we have to, keep quiet about the profound and growing concern that we have about the death and pain that war causes for innocent people."

The stage is set

President Bush himself, in statements made in light of Sept. 11, has said that oil is a national security issue. This is his new reasoning for pushing for oil drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge.

Plan Colombia from its outset was designed as a program to secure US oil interests (with a strong eye toward Venezuela) in the Andean region under the guise of the "war on drugs".

Since Sept. 11, the US has vowed to commit more money and personnel to Colombia and the Andean region and will be waging a counter-insurgency campaign in Colombia which threatens to spill over into Venezuela.

President Chavez's domestic policies, with regard to such things as land reform, threatens capital and corporate interests.

Chavez's foreign policy via his "petroleum diplomacy" and his aligning with Brazil to strengthen the Mercusor agreement rather than back the FTAA is also problematic to US oil and capital interests.

The US has a well-documented history, under similar circumstances, of military interventions in such countries, including the use of proxy forces and coups.

Chavez's stated fears about Plan Colombia and its effects on Venezuela seem to be justified. Now there is also the war on terrorism to add to those fears.

The media campaign has been working against Chavez. The US media has been portraying him as "the next Castro" and "friendly" to Saddam Hussein and Libya, "enemies" of the US.

This is summed up nicely by Héctor Mondragón, a Colombian indigenous leader: "This whole press campaign seeks to create a psychological climate to foment a Colombian-Venezuelan conflict that would convert the US intervention in Colombia into an intervention to attack the government of Venezuela."

Though the US has been cautious thus far in its treatment of Chavez, there are growing signs that caution may soon be tossed aside.

Sources: Weekly News Update on the Americas , Toronto Globe and Mail, New York Times, Associated Press, Reuters, Z Magazine, IPS, Miami Herald

This article originally appeared in The Asheville Global Report. The AGR can be seen online at www.agrnews.org

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