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Follow the Minerals: Why the US is Threatened by Venezuela’s ‘Blue Gold’

The author argues that Venezuela's abundance of the highly strategic mineral coltan could be behind Obama's labeling of the South American nation an "unusual and extraordinary threat". 


US PRESIDENT Obama generated international outcry after imposing further sanctions on Venezuela in March and claiming that Venezuela poses an “unusual and extraordinary threat” to US security. President Maduro of Venezuela fired back at Obama, saying the sanctions and executive order are an attempt to use force to control the country.    

One forthright response to the US decree from Bolivian President Evo Morales demanded Obama to: “Stop turning the world into a battlefield.” 

Is any threat posed by Venezuela merely an illusion created to oil the wheels of intervention?

What is real and tangible is the US’ increasing demand for the natural resources Venezuela has in superabundance. 

Resource wealth can be a blessing and a curse. Not only is Venezuela the fifth largest oil exporting country in the world, with the second-largest reserves of heavy crude oil, but also add to that the country’s rich mineral reserves, plus a turbulent economy, and you have a recipe for ‘resource curse’. 

Staving off the dreaded resource curse, Venezuela has paved a new road to success. Key to sustaining this progress is the country’s ability to maintain its own mineral wealth.

Venezuela sits on mineral reserves of gold, iron ore, diamonds, coal, uranium and the precious mineral coltan.

Coltan is Venezuela’s Oro Azul or ‘blue gold’. In 2009, President Hugo Chávezannounced the discovery of reserves worth $100 billion of “the blue gold of the 21st century” in the Amazon region of the country. 

The price of this blue gold follows an increasing demand for a high-grade metal known as tantalum, processed from refined coltan. Demand for coltan is so intense, it fetches a higher price on the international market than even gold or diamonds.

Tantalum is the metal used in capacitors that store energy in modern electronics like smart phones and tablets. Tantalum capacitors are also essential in powering modern military weaponry because the metal resists corrosion and can withstand the extreme temperatures generated by the new military applications. Without it, weapons systems would overheat. 

The US relies on tantalum to build the basic circuitry in guidance control systems in smart bombs, the on-board navigational systems in drones, anti-tank systems, robots and most weapons systems.

The metal is vital to US defense. Yet, it has no domestic source of coltan. Importing and stockpiling tantalum is its only recourse.

As the need for tantalum increases, smugglers move coltan from Venezuela to the US via Colombia and Brazil. 

Paramilitary groups control the black market trade of coltan ore, raising insecurity in the region. South of Caicara del Orinoco in Bolívar state where the blue gold reserves are found, cattle ranchers are forced to flee their land.

The minerals trade fuels the conflict in the war-ravaged Congo. Violence in mining areas is proportionate to the demand for rare minerals like coltan. When tantalum shortages cause the price of coltan to soar, violence intensifies in these areas. The Congolese war has killed over six million people since 1996. Thus the term ‘conflict minerals’. 

Mining destroys all life and its natural environment – killing vegetation, damaging the soil, waterways and biodiversity. The mining area at Venezuela’s border of the Amazon rainforest has the country’s highest proportion of indigenous peoples. It is home to at least 26 indigenous communities who rely on the natural environment for their ancestral ways of life. 

In an attempt to fight illegal smuggling into Colombia, the Venezuelan government ordered a national crackdown on illegal miners and extended restrictions on the 2,200 kilometer border between Venezuela and Colombia.

In December, the Venezuelan government rescued a 30,000 square kilometer area in the country’s most loved national park, clearing it of illegal miners

Critics of Chávez blame the violence on the ban he instituted in 2009. However, unregulated and illegal artisanal mining in the region goes back decades. And the growing appetite for coltan is only exacerbating the problem. 

More importantly: what is driving illegal mining? Who is paying out for smuggled Venezuelan coltan ore, feeding the smelters, buying from refiners and stockpiling large quantities of tantalum?

Where the coltan goes, nobody knows. Tablets and smart phones amount to only a part of the coltan market. There is a documented demand for tantalum by the US defense industry. Could a crackdown on coltan smuggling in Venezuela pose a threat to the US? 

A recent 60 minutes episode describes the ‘threat’ that China poses to US national security, not because of tantalum, but from other rare earth elements. China is the world’s single source of these elements. US defense systems depend on rare earth elements needed in manufacturing tomahawk cruise missiles, lasers and guidance systems on weapons. In other words, the US depends on China for its weaponry. 

Following this logic, for Venezuela to derail coltan smugglers en route to the US via Colombia and Brazil, could jeopardize the Pentagon’s cache of tantalum from refined coltan.

If a top-rated US news programme portrays China as a threat because it possesses giant mineral reserves that the US needs for its defense industry, then what does this say about the blue gold wars raging across the Eastern Congo and northern Amazon?

Conflict-free advocacy overlooks the links between minerals and the weapons manufacturing industry, focusing narrowly on smart phones, laptops and tablets. It is doubtful defense companies will be seeking out conflict-free mines and transparent, traceable supply chains.

A conflict-free weapon is still an oxymoron.

Advances in military technology and the obsession with armed drones will not curb the craving for tantalum. All the more reason to follow the minerals.

Paramilitary armies traffic illegally mined coltan ore over supply lines to smelters and refiners that sell tantalum to the world’s warmongers, who then build more weaponry to further wage illegal wars

Obama was half right. There is a real threat. And it’s turning the world into a battlefield. As US sanctions in the past have tended to foreshadow military intervention, Morales’ words ring true.