News Analysis: Despite War of Words, U.S.-Venezuela Ties Remain Strong By VINOD SREEHARSHA Pacific News Service
CARACAS, Venezuela—“I support Chavez for standing up to U.S. imperialism,” said Sean, a 16-year-old Canadian. He was one of 15,000 youths representing 144 countries at the recent 16th World Festival of Youth and Students, a communist splurge organized by Venezuela’s president and self-proclaimed revolutionary Hugo Chavez.
The Venezuelan newspaper Tal Cual was not impressed, describing many of the organizations in attendance as “archeological remains of an extinct species, normally requiring Carbon-14 to be detected.”
Tal Cual Editor Teodoro Petkoff knows about revolutions. He is a former jailed Marxist guerrilla. Today he is a leading Chavez critic. He also opposes President Bush and the war in Iraq.
Christian commentator and GOP stalwart Pat Robertson’s call for President Chavez’s assassination last week and the White House’s tepid disassociation from his comments were only the latest in an ongoing war of words between Washington and Chavez. Venezuela’s twice democratically elected president has increasingly been playing to the international anti-U.S. crowd. On August 21, while visiting Cuba, Chavez called U.S. imperialism “the grand destroyer of the world.”
Yet beneath the heated rhetoric and posturing by both sides, business between the two nations goes on uninterrupted, and is in many sectors increasing.
One of the underlying and most contentious issues between the two nations has been oil, and Venezuela’s threat to replace the U.S. market with China’s. Chavez recently teased the United States, saying, “We could send two ships a day elsewhere.”
Yet analysts think this is unlikely, at least in the short-term, despite PDVSA, Venezuela’s state oil company, recently opening an office in China. Roger Tissot of PFC Energy, an oil and gas consulting firm, says “it is very difficult to see this happening.” Venezuela crude oil is of an inferior quality to Middle East crude. It is heavier and contains more sulfur, and the Chinese lack the necessary refining technology to process it.
Chavez nonetheless continues to discount Venezuelan oil to countries he views as strategic or ideological partners. Yet the Chinese “are neither interested in importing nor exporting a revolution,” Tissot says.
General commerce between the United States and Venezuela also seems unaffected by the sparring. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. exports to Venezuela during the first six months of 2005 grew by 40 percent over the same period last year. Venezuelan exports to the United States grew by 35 percent. In 2004, U.S. pharmaceutical exports increased 75 percent compared to 2003 levels, and electric machinery exports more than doubled.
At a Business Roundtable held in Caracas last month—attended by Chavez—U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela William Brownfield said, “Venezuela and the U.S. are natural commercial partners, and this will not change.”
In public, however, Chavez continues to provoke the United States. At the communist festival he said, “Mr. Danger (his nickname for President Bush) is not a person—he is an imperialist system. Either we take down the United States or the United States ends this planet.”
Conference-goers ate up such rhetoric.
Luis Petrosini, a political analyst and professor at the Universidad Catolica Andres Bello, contends that Chavez’s increasingly anti-U.S. rhetoric is meant to shift attention away from some of his failures in Venezuela. “He is transferring responsibility for Venezuela’s problems to Bush.”
When Chavez took office in 1999, he promised that in one year no more children would be begging in the streets. He has not yet delivered. He also promised to build 120,000 low income houses this year. So far he has come through on 10,000. And while he attended the graduation last week in Havana of the first Venezuelans sent to Cuba to study medicine, public hospitals in his country lack X-ray equipment.
Chavez still enjoys widespread support. But he was first elected because he offered hope to thousands of Venezuelans who had previously been neglected. He rarely mentioned the United States his first few years in office.
Professor Petrosini even voted for Chavez twice, but says today the charismatic figure prefers playing to the international crowd with his anti-U.S. rhetoric. “He has a messianic sense that he is divined to change world order,” Petrosini says.
While the United States, in opposing Chavez, could simply hold him accountable to his promises, it has instead opted for supporting failed coups and recall referendums, strategies that have backfired.
Following the July launch of the pan-Latin American television channel Telesur, which is heavily funded and majority-owned by the Venezuelan government, a U.S. Congressman from Florida sponsored legislation financing a counter TV channel. Tal Cual’s Petkoff, contacted by phone, calls the move “politically idiotic, demonstrating total ignorance of Venezuela,” where the media is mostly privately owned and anti-Chavez.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in mid-August said that Chavez’s actions in Latin America “were unhelpful,” insinuating a Chavez role in the recent instability in Bolivia. The United States has never offered proof for this allegation. “The idea that Venezuela is responsible for the problems in other countries is absurd,” Petkoff says. “It overestimates Chavez.”
Many of the communist festival-goers might also need to back up their revolutionary credentials. Dozens stayed at the Hilton Caracas hotel, where rooms normally start at $150 per night. Venezuela footed the bill.
Vinod Sreeharsha is a freelance writer based in Buenos Aires.?