Venezuela's Chavez Courts World Leaders

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been visiting countries such as China, Iran and Russia as part of an effort to build a "strategic alliance" of interests not beholden to the United States. He considers the United States his arch enemy. But Chavez is in a difficult position because the United States buys most of Venezuela's oil.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Let's see if we can learn from the action of another world leader, Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez. He's in Malaysia this week. Last week he was in China, and before that Iran and Russia. Chavez says he's building a strategic alliance of countries willing to stand up to the United States, which he has called a blind, stupid giant.

The United States also happens to be the country that buys most of Venezuela's oil. It is a fact that puts President Chavez in a difficult position, and as NPR's Tom Gjelten reports, it is also a fact he would like to change.

TOM GJELTEN reporting:

Hugo Chavez rarely misses an opportunity to say something bad about the United States, and with his constant international travel he can make his points in a different world capital nearly every week. In China, he said the United States is the greatest threat to democracy in the world. In Iran, he called the United States an imperialist monster. But Chavez wants more; he's campaigning now to get Venezuela elected to a two-year seat on the U.N. Security Council, where his government could challenge U.S. influence directly.

As one of the world's leading oil producers, Venezuela right now can cover its president's international travels. Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue says Hugo Chavez sees this as his chance to make a mark.

Mr. MICHAEL SHIFTER (Vice President of Policy, Inter-American Dialogue): He has enormous resources. He is benefiting from the oil bonanza today. And he is somebody who really seeks to take advantage of opportunities to expand his influence, to expand his power. He sees himself as a world leader.

GJELTEN: The Venezuelan government is now collecting about $30 billion a year in taxes from the sale of oil. That money helps to support the generous social programs that have made Hugo Chavez popular among the Venezuelan poor and working classes. The problem is nearly two-thirds of Venezuela's oil is sold to the United States, the archenemy of Hugo Chavez.

Javier Corrales is a Venezuela expert at Amherst College.

Mr. JAVIER CORRALES (Professor of Political Science, Amherst College): He's trapped. He is in the very uncomfortable position that the fuel for his government comes directly from doing business with the United States.

GJELTEN: For this reason, Chavez was in Beijing last week negotiating a deal to boost oil exports to China. Before leaving Beijing, Chavez said China within five years would be buying up to a half million barrels of oil per day from Venezuela. That would be about three times the current amount. But such a deal would be expensive for Venezuela; the country mostly produces heavy crude with a high sulfur content. U.S. refineries can process it, but China would have to build new refineries to handle the Venezuelan crude. Plus it costs a lot more to ship oil to China than it does to the United States.

Patrick Esteruelas is the Latin America analyst at the Eurasia Group in New York.

Mr. PATRICK ESTERUELAS (Latin America Analyst, Eurasia Group): Venezuela is forced to assume many of the transport costs, and is forced to sell crude to China at a much lower price.

GJELTEN: For Venezuela to be able to afford switching its oil exports from the United States to China it needs world prices to stay high. Javier Corrales of Amherst College thinks this maybe one reason Hugo Chavez has seemed intent lately on stirring up trouble in the Middle East, encouraging Iran to stand up to the United States, for example, in cheering Hezbollah in its war with Israel.

Mr. CORRALES: Venezuela has an interest in maximizing the price of oil. That means Chavez does not mind creating the kind of political crises that may raise the price of oil further.

GJELTEN: The idea that Hugo Chavez would pursue an oil market that makes less economic sense than the U.S. market offers may seem strange, but Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue says it shows how serious Chavez is about ending what he considers U.S. hegemony in Latin America and across the world.

Mr. SHIFTER: I think he wants to challenge what he sees as a uni-polar world and to redress some of the power imbalances, the power differences, that have existed for so long. And I think he's on a mission and he's going to try to push as hard as he can.

GJELTEN: Hugo Chavez will learn how much of a following he has in October when the U.N. General Assembly chooses which countries will get the 10 temporary seats on the Security Council. Venezuela is up against Guatemala in that election.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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