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On the Trail of Hugo Chavez

Prepared by: Stephanie Hanson
Updated: August 22, 2006

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Hugo Chavez is better known for his hyperbolic statements—he calls President Bush "Mr. Danger" and labels Israel's campaign in Lebanon a "new Holocaust" (Miami Herald)—than his diplomacy. But a trip to China this week (Australian), preceded by a recent world tour (SFChron) that included visits to Belarus, Russia, and Iran, suggests the Venezuelan president's foreign policy ambitions may be just as outsized as his rhetoric.

Among the many reasons for his recent globe-trotting—lobbying for a temporary seat on the UN Security Council (BosGlobe), arms purchases, and strengthening relationships with anti-U.S. leaders of several countries at odds with Washington—one dominated: energy deals. In Russia, President Vladimir Putin appeared cool to requests to fund a South American oil pipeline, but in Iran, calls for oil investment in Venezuela's Orinoco region fell on more responsive ears. On July 30, Iran's state-owned oil company agreed to invest some $4 billion in two Venezuelan oil fields (WSJ). In Beijing this week, Chavez hopes to sign agreements for China to build tankers to haul oil to Asia and rigs to help Venezuela upgrade their oil infrastructure (AP).

Chavez's growing assertiveness, in Latin America and beyond, is fueled by oil riches, generously dispensed to friends and neighbors. But this largesse is dependent on the country he loves to hate: Roughly half of Venezuelan oil exports go to the United States. This new Backgrounder examines Chavez's foreign policy goals and the sustainability of his petrodiplomacy.

Though U.S. officials are watching Chavez's moves carefully, experts say they are divided on how seriously to take his growing power. Some analysts focus on his strengthened relationship with Iran (NYT), while others are concerned about the possibility he will cut off oil to the United States. Richard Lugar (R-IN), chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, acknowledged it is unlikely Venezuela will cease its supply of oil to the United States, but he still urged the government to plan for a disruption (FT). The Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimates (PDF) such a boycott could raise oil prices by eleven dollars per barrel.

Stephen Johnson of the Heritage Foundation says Chavez has long been underestimated, and while he may not be a threat, he is certainly a "major irritant." But CFR Senior Fellow Julia E. Sweig writes that the prospect of Chavez supplanting Cuba's Fidel Castro "as the new Latin threat of the post-Cold War world is vastly overblown—and the notion that he could drive the rest of the region toward the left is even more so" (WashPost). Michael Shifter, vice president of the Inter-American dialogue, writes in Foreign Affairs that two caricatures of Chavez—the populist hero and the power-hungry authoritarian—have prevented the United States from mounting an effective strategy to combat Latin America's social inequalities and unrest.

Mexican journalist Alma Guillermoprieto examines Chavez's military background and flamboyant personality in the New York Review of Books. In a second article, she visits the social welfare programs created by Chavez and then talks to the political opposition (NYReview). The opposition has canceled a primary scheduled for August 13, choosing instead to unite behind one candidate, Manuel Rosales, who will challenge Chavez in December's presidential election (AP).

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