What do you know? It's all about oil, after all. We're not talking here about Iraq or even the Middle East, but about a country half a world away that has become the focus of Washington's concerns because of its possession of black liquid gold. The new object of US fears, resentments and potential hostilities is Venezuela, the oil-rich Caribbean nation of 18 million located just four days' sail by tanker from the American mainland.
Like Iraq, Venezuela has never evidenced any intention to attack this country or harm its citizens; yet, its democratically elected leader, President Hugo Chavez, has become an object of hatred and scorn for the loonier elements of America's political right, which regularly demand his violent ouster. Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) calls Chavez an enemy of freedom. Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) likens him to Mussolini. And the Rev. Pat Robertson suggests US Special Forces should "take out" the Venezuelan chief of state, a proposal that has produced consternation even in the trigger-happy Bush White House.
The president and his advisors also want Chavez gone, but their approach has been far more subtle. In 2002, they verbally (and perhaps otherwise) supported a failed coup attempt against him by internal right-wing forces. At that time, the Bush administration (in contrast to the Organization of American States) was quick to recognize the legitimacy of the initially successful plotters and was subsequently embarrassed when Chavez returned to power within 24 hours. It denied any involvement, but the intimate relationship between the rebel leadership and portions of Washington's foreign-policy establishment convinced most Latin Americans, as well as many outside the region, that the American government was active behind the scenes.
According to the Mexican press, there was a quid pro quo at work in America's clandestine support for the overthrow of Chavez: namely, the privatization of Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), the state-owned oil company, and its subsidiary Citgo, and their sale to US oil companies. The coup's failure made any such agreement a moot point, and the Bush administration has been treading lightly ever since where Venezuela is concerned. However, the ranting attacks of its surrogates in Congress and in the media indicate that underlying antagonisms have not abated; they've merely been pushed to the back burner, and recent developments are bringing them once more to the fore.
The major development has been the worldwide oil crisis and the drastic rise in gasoline and heating-oil prices in the US. This, combined with the fact that Venezuela's share of American petroleum imports has grown to 14% and made OPEC's charter member in the Western Hemisphere our number one supplier (ahead of Canada, Mexico and Saudi Arabia), has again set the Chavez government up as a potential target. Hugo Chavez's political stance in the international community -- he regularly berates Potomac policymakers -- has only exacerbated the situation. For American conservatives keen on finding a scapegoat, it's a perfect melding of ideology and economics.
Hugo Chavez is, depending on your perspective, either an idealistic populist reformer or a budding communist bent on fomenting violent revolution. To the American right, he is definitely the latter, and its spokesmen point to his friendship with Fidel Castro -- Chavez supplies Cuba with cheap oil; Castro provides Venezuela with trained medical personnel -- as the ultimate evidence. They accuse him of financing radical movements throughout Latin America, but have so far offered no proof. For his part, Chavez, whose hero is Venezuela's democratic liberator Simon Bolivar, now calls himself a socialist and his erstwhile neo-Bolivarian revolution "21st century socialism"; all the same, he explicitly rejects the communist model.
The scenario sounds slightly scary to American ears until it's analyzed. Chavez's socialism, which is aimed at lifting up Venezuela's vast poverty-stricken majority (60% or more of the population) who, like himself, are predominantly of indigenous Indian ethnicity, consists of a uniquely Hispanic blend of agrarian reforms, government social programs and worker cooperatives designed to redistribute land, improve education and health care, and in general raise living standards. It also includes expanded regulation of private business and some limited state ownership (a government airline, phone company, supermarket chain and television network, in addition to PDVSA), but the essence is in the cooperatives and social programs (or "missions"), whose popularity has virtually guaranteed Chavez's reelection in 2006 to a third term as president.
The good news is that unlike Fidel Castro, Chavez remains thus far a committed democrat; his party presently monopolizes all branches of government, but then, so does George W. Bush's. The rub, especially for Big Oil (and perhaps American consumers), is that Chavez plans to fund his program of egalitarian reform with revenues from Venezuela's state-owned oil company and from increased royalties on foreign oil firms active inside the country, together the source of half the national budget.
The drilling profits of multinationals like Exxon-Mobil, Chevron-Texaco, British Petroleum and Royal Dutch Shell will shortly be taxed at a 50% rate (the current levy is 34%), and their exploration contracts will be forcibly renegotiated to give Venezuela a controlling 51% interest, effectively making them joint ventures. According to Fortune magazine, Big Oil will likely acquiesce, in order to retain access to Venezuela's estimated 80 billion barrels of proven reserves, among the world's largest; only a belligerent Exxon is offering stubborn resistance.
Still, it's worth remembering that the US has a population weaned on cheap petroleum, which it regards as a birthright, and that it is ruled by a government of, by and for oilmen, who view the world's oil reserves as more or less an American property. Neoconservative dreams of empire and Bush family obsessions about Saddam Hussein notwithstanding, it's unlikely we would be in Iraq if not for that country's oil.
For now, the administration's ongoing preoccupation with the Middle East will allow Hugo Chavez to pursue his oil-driven program of peaceful domestic revolution undisturbed and undeterred. Should the Iraq situation be suddenly resolved, however, thoughts of regime change will inevitably shift to the southern Caribbean, and Chavez will be transformed into the scapegoat for our oil miseries. In the meantime, those who wish to assist the Venezuelan poor and make a statement in support of public ownership can stop by their neighborhood Citgo station.
Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.