Caracas, Venezuela, July 25, 2006 —Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus cemented their ties yesterday by signing an array of cooperation agreements at the Presidential Palace in the Belarusian capital, Minsk. The two men were full of praise for one another:
“Here, I’ve got a new friend and together we’ll form a team, I thank you, Alexander, for your solidarity and we’ve come here to demonstrate our solidarity”, said Chávez.
Lukashenko responded by saying, “You are versed not only in the economy of Venezuela but in the Belarus economy as well, you know military science, the military-industrial complex, and this impresses me very much.”
The agreements, seven in all, are part of what Chávez described as a “Strategic Alliance” between the two countries designed to strengthen relationships in the fields of science and technology, agriculture, petrochemicals & energy, food stuffs, mining, and military-technical cooperation. There was also a geo-strategic element to the accords which sought to shore up Chavez’ common themes of national sovereignty and economic independence.
The most significant agreement was that for the petrochemical and energy sectors. A joint venture company is planned to exploit oil and gas reserves. The two leaders agreed to set up a commission to oversee the project which will be presided over by the Venezuelan Minister of Energy and Petroleum, Rafael Ramírez.
It is hoped the agreement will be the catalyst for joint projects in all the various processes in the petrochemical and oil & gas industries such as extraction, distribution, storage and sales. T he Venezuelan government is particularly interested in the research and development of technologies for the processing and refining of heavy and extra heavy oil. Venezuela has an abundance of these, but until the recent high oil price they were considered uneconomical due to the costs involved in processing and in extraction.
The agreement on military-technology is also significant. While short on details of the agreement Chávez said it would contribute to the strengthening of national defense capacity, leaving Venezuela more capable of facing internal or external threats. G iven that Eastern Europe generally is considered a producer of quality defense hardware, it is said that the agreement could also help build relationships across that region.
While emphasizing an exchange of knowledge and expertise, Chávez also hinted at the potential for an increase in trade between Venezuela and Belarus, “ We are importing equipment and oil services worth US$10 billion a year and a good part of this money goes to the United States. We’re sure that Belarus can supply a good part of this equipment.”
And all of this was wrapped in the rhetoric of anti-imperialism. Lukashenko said that “a natural urge to depart from the unipolar model of the global order to a community of equal partners is becoming an irresistible consolidating factor.”
Chavez continued, saying, “Belarus is a model of a social state, which we are also building and we must defend the interests of the individual and not the hegemonic interests of the capitalists, wherever they may be, in Europe or Latin America.”.
But while the agreements on economic cooperation may seem relatively benign, politically this is a much more controversial trip for the Venezuelan government. President Chávez has had his shouting matches with the US government and there have been disagreements with one or two European leaders. Economic relations have, however, remained normal.
On the other hand, Belarus has actually been sanctioned by the US and the EU for allegedly rigging elections and for the political oppression of opponents. Lukashenko is known among US and EU elites as “Europe´s last dictator.” Chávez is bound to come under criticism for this meeting from both at home and overseas.
Not everyone views Belarus in such a negative manner, however. Some, such as Dr. Mark Almond, a historian from Oxford University, while acknowledges that Belarus “is far from perfect,” but points out that “Belarus has an evolving market economy. But the market is orientated towards serving the needs of the bulk of the population, not a tiny class of nouveaux riches and their western advisers and money launderers.”
At the end of the meeting between Venezuela and Belarus President Chávez invited his counterpart to Venezuela and both parties seemed to part company relatively satisfied.
Next stop for Chávez is Russia and a meeting with President Putin.