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Opinion and Analysis: International

Fighting Oil with Oil in Venezuela: King Condi vs Rodrizilla

In what White House press secretary Richard Boucher dubbed a “continuing process of personnel changes,” US Secretary of State Colin L. Powell resigned last week, along with Attorney General John Ashcroft and other members of George W. Bush’s cabinet.  Powell will be replaced by National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, a close confidant of the President.  The replacement of Powell, generally perceived as having “reluctantly” toed the official line on the Bush administration’s controversial Middle East policy, with the hawkish Rice raises the possibility of a more aggressive foreign policy in Bush’s second term.

Perhaps in response, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez named a new Foreign Minister shortly after Rice’s appointment.  Rumors of former-Foreign Minister Jesus Pérez’ imminent departure surfaced mere months after his appointment last winter, but had increased considerably in frequency and in certainty over the last two months.  The fact that his replacement, Alí Rodriguez, who was President of the state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela S. A. (PDVSA), was never mentioned as a possible replacement in rumors leading up to the decision is one indication that the appointment of Rice as U.S. Secretary of State may have been a factor in his appointment.

The implications of Rice’s appointment for Latin America are not yet clear.  As Director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs Larry Birns noted recently, “a search of [Rice’s] public statements on Latin American issues produces very thin gruel…Aside from superficial barrages aimed at the regional ‘bad boys,’ Castro and Chávez, Rice has shown neither a substantial interest nor a particular competence regarding the region.”

Birns continues, suggesting Rice “almost certainly will use her Cold War-bred intellectual credentials to hunt down any leftwing manifestations in the region.”  But Rice has other credentials that are also likely to come into play.  As with many of her fellow cabinet members, Condoleezza (“Condi”) has a background in oil.  In this she is no anomaly, as an article by Katty Kay for BBC News noted in 2001, “What makes the new Bush administration different from previous wealthy cabinets is that so many of the officials have links to the same industry - oil.”

From 1991 to 2001 Rice served as director of the Chevron Corporation, for which she received the distinguished, if short-lived, honor of having an oil tanker named after her (it was renamed after a controversy broke out once she became National Security Advisor to the President, while a Chevron tanker sailed the high seas with her name on the bow).

There’s no Place Like Home

With the November 2nd vote of confidence for the Bush administration’s ‘assertive’ foreign policy, and Rice’s appointment as Secretary of State, Latin America, and more specifically, Venezuela is likely to be more focused in Washington’s sights.  The combination of this administration’s un-self-conscious pursuit of oil, and Rice’s specific ties to the industry in combination with her ‘cold war-breeding’ do not bode well for revolutionary experiments in a ‘backyard’ the US is apparently remembering.

In a Washington Post editorial last Saturday, ominously entitled “Watch Venezuela”, the conservative and openly anti-Chávez paper criticized US “neglect” of the region, while commending President Bush for his staunch support for such a shining example of democratic government as Colombia.  Bush also visited Chile on what was only his second trip to South America as President.

The image of an American President standing smugly outside of the Chilean Presdiential Palace La Moneda, as Bush announced a bilateral trade agreement between the two countries, drew a distasteful parallel to the US’ sordid past in that country. Thirty-one years ago, then-President Salvador Allende died as bombs obliterated La Moneda in a US-supported coup against his democratically elected government.  The scene at the palace today is, admittedly, somewhat different: a US President supporting a different kind of imperialism in Chile, and with the current Chilean President’s blessing, but the parallel is there.

After a quick jab at Washington’s wandering gaze, the Post editorial gets right to the point.  “The likely focal point of trouble is Venezuela, a country of 25 million that supplies the United States with 13 percent of its oil.”  The Post concludes by commending the appointment of Rice as Secretary of State.  “Condoleezza Rice was quoted recently as describing Mr. Chavez as ‘a real problem’,” declares the Post happily, “and saying that ‘the key there is to mobilize the region to both watch him and be vigilant about him and to pressure him when he makes moves in one direction or another. We can't do it alone.’”  “That sounds like a wise policy;” muses the Post, adding “once she takes office, Ms. Rice should end the administration's passivity toward this important region and pursue it.”

Fighting Oil with Oil

The Washington Post’s editorials cannot be easily dismissed.  Besides an apparent confluence of political interests with the Bush administration, by its own admission the Post has cooperated with the State Department in a disturbing confusion of government and supposedly independent media.  According to staff writer Marcela Sanchez writing in early August of this year, “State Department officials say they are talking with U.S. editorial writers, hoping to send a clear message to Chavez through the press…”  And it would appear that they have.  Chávez is restructuring his cabinet as well, at least in part as part of a process he has called the “deepening of the Bolívarian revolution.”

Last August almost 6 million (60%) Venezuelans voted for Chávez to stay in office in a recall referendum that severely backfired on the fractured opposition, and just last month State and Municipal candidates loyal to Chávez came away with a near sweep of the country.  The resultant “red map” is a great boon to Chávez, who declared after his referendum victory the inauguration of the “revolution within the revolution.”

Three weeks into the newest phase of the Bolívarian revolution, named after Latin American independence leader Simón Bolívar, President Chávez has appointed a new Foreign Minister in what is looking more and more like a direct response to Condoleezza Rice’s new duties.  Leaving the state oil company PDVSA to Energy minister Rafael Ramírez, former president Alí Rodriguez Araque is Venezuela’s newest Foreign Minister.  Before wresting the state oil company from the elites who had long been the sole custodians of the country’s oil wealth, Rodriguez was Secretary-General of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC)—a legacy that has surely earned the ire of the US.  And before that, Rodriguez was a communist guerilla.

In appointing Alí Rodriguez to head up Venezuela’s Foreign Ministry, President Chávez must be conscious of the threatening possibilities of a second Bush administration with nothing to lose.  Certainly this administration has made its hatred for Cuba and, partly by association, for Venezuela clear.  Add to this the potential for a broadened ‘assertiveness’ in the US’ conflation of energy security and national security, and Venezuela’s own newly intertwined oil and foreign policy, unfortunately, makes sense.

As Roger Tissot, director of markets and countries for the PFC Energy Group, an energy consulting group in Washington notes in a New York Times article by Brian Ellsworth, “President Chávez believes that energy policy and foreign policy go hand in hand, so he needs someone like Alí Rodríguez who has the technical background to build diplomatic bridges out of commercial relationships based on oil.”

Oil at the center of the Bush doctrine?  Ok, so it’s been said before.  But when the horrified historical observer looks back on what has been ‘accomplished’ in the name of energy strategy during Bush’s first term, the imagination shudders at the thought of what may lie ahead.  Rice’s direction as Secretary of State may in the end be no different from Powell’s.  Despite his image as the ‘human one’, and despite the occasional foot shuffling and pouting, he dutifully toed the line.

Yet Rice’s appointment may also represent the extension of the Bush doctrine as it has been applied in South Asia and the Middle East to other parts of the globe—and if the canary in the mineshaft/State Department stoolies at the Washington Post are any indication, Latin America and Venezuela are in trouble.

Half-Baked

It is perhaps a prescient strategy.  Along with Rice, other oil hawks appear to be in position should the second Bush administration be ready to concentrate more fully on Latin America.  Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) member Amy Myers Jeffe of the James A. Baker III Institute is one.  According to her webpage at Rice University (where the Baker Institute is based), Ms. Jaffe is currently organizing a major study on energy in Latin America for the Baker Institute.

The last major study on energy that Jaffe worked on was apparently well received in Washington.  “Strategic Energy Policy Challenges for the 21st Century,” co-sponsored by the Baker Institute and the CFR and directed by Jaffe bluntly states the report’s central dilemma: “the American people continue to demand plentiful and cheap energy without sacrifice or inconvenience…”—one can see where the prioritization of those demands have taken us.

James Baker was Secretary of State under Bush I from 1989-1992, the same time when Condoleezza Rice was Senior Advisor on Soviet Affairs to Bush Senior’s National Security Council.  Baker recently regained notoriety as Bush Junior’s envoy on Iraq’s debt, when it was revealed by Naomi Klein in The Nation that Baker was using his connections with the White House to further enrich himself and his buddies at the Carlyle Group.

Baker Institute interest in Latin American ‘energy security’ can mean only one thing: recommended extension of the American presence in Colombia, including increased financial and military aid to President Alvaro Uribe, despite consistent allegations throughout his entire political career that he is very closely tied to Colombian paramilitaries; and increased ‘pressure’ on Venezuela President Hugo Chávez, to make sure his so-called ‘revolution’ doesn’t get any wise ideas about shackling US ‘energy’ or ‘security’ interests in Venezuela.

Last week, Brooklyn, NY-based lawyer Eva Golinger revealed just what Bush administration ‘pressure’ looks like when it comes to Venezuela.  According to documents obtained by Golinger under the Freedom of Information Act and available on her website www.venezuelafoia.info, the CIA was aware of a plot to overthrow Chávez several weeks before the April 11th, 2002 coup occurred.

One April 6, 2002 top secret intelligence brief entitled “Venezuela: Conditions Ripening for Coup Attempt”, obtained by Golinger reveals, “Dissident military factions, including some disgruntled senior officers and a group of radical junior officers, are stepping up efforts to organize a coup against President Chávez, possible as early as this month, [CENSORED].”  The report continues, noting, “the level of detail in the reported plans – [CENSORED] targets Chávez and 10 other senior officers for arrest….To provoke military action, the plotters may try to exploit unrest stemming from opposition demonstrations slated for later this month…”

The US government has always denied that it new of, or was involved in, the coup, despite allegations to the contrary by the Venezuelan government, and foreign journalists who witnessed the coup.  A CIA spokeswoman commented to New York Newsday reporters Bart Jones and Letta Taylor, “The CIA was simply doing what it is we do, in terms of analyzing events and providing policy-makers with our best estimate of the events as they unfold.  Alerting Chávez to the impending coup, she said “would suggest we would meddle in the affairs of another nation.”  How respectful of the CIA and the 200 US government officials who apparently saw the report prior to April 11th to refrain from interfering in Venezuelan politics.

The US and Spain were the only countries to recognize the coup government.  After Chávez was restored to power, a noticeably unsheepish National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said she hoped Chavez had learned his lesson.  As Thomas Walkom noted at the time in the Toronto Star, “Presumably, he has. So have we all. Bush wants the world's energy. As much as the events of Sept. 11, this is what drives U.S policy.”

The Coming Storm

One week before announcing his resignation in an interview with the Financial Times, Secretary Powell suggested that a second Bush administration would continue its aggressive foreign policy.  “So the President has had an active foreign policy that has been controversial in the sense of, should we have done what we did in Iraq? We did it….It has been aggressive in terms of going after challenges and issues that needed to be dealt with by the nation with the most power in the world. And the President is going to keep moving in that direction.”

In a recent report the Americas Program at the Interhemispheric Resource Center (IRC) gave an indication of what, exactly, policies in that direction might look like.  “Democrats and Republicans in Congress will remain united around a bipartisan agenda of promoting an American worldview through U.S. political aid (channeled to organizations and movements by the National Endowment for Democracy and U.S. Agency for International Development), propaganda, and public diplomacy,” says the report.  “During the second GW Bush administration, the neoconservative policy framework of ‘democratic globalism’ will serve as it has since the early 1980s—as the glue of a bipartisan foreign policy that provides a liberal rationale for military and political interventionism around the globe.”

Eva Golinger estimates that the National Endowment of Development has funneled US$20 million of ‘democratic globalism’ to the Venezuelan opposition since 2001.  And the IRC’s parallel to the 1980s might not be far off either: Antonio López the prime suspect in last week’s car-bomb assassination of Venezuelan Public Prosecutor Danilo Anderson was trained in explosives and other counter-insurgency techniques in the US.  CIA terrorism manuals reminiscent of those widely distributed to Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980s were found in López’ home.  Combined with the NED’s funding of the Venezuelan opposition, CIA promotion of violence follows the exact pattern of Reagan’s anti-Sandinista or ‘Contra’ (against) strategy of destabilization of the 1980s.

Facing off against such an administration, Venezuela is alone but for Cuba after the ‘Left’ presidencies of Lagos in Chile, Kirchner in Argentina, and Lula in Brazil have all cut their deals with the US.  If the Bolívarian revolution is to advance in such an atmosphere of American hegemony, Chávez has apparently recognized the sagacity of fighting oil with oil.