VENEZUELA: Bush's next oil war?

March 16, 2005

Stuart Munckton

A statement released on March 8 and signed by almost 400 Venezuelan journalists accused the US government and media of a campaign to prepare the ground for a US military attack on oil-rich Venezuela.

According to translation of the statement posted at the Venezuela Analysis website, it begins by declaring: "As it was done in the past to Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Chile, Grenada, and Haiti, the government of the United States today targets the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela with all its media and propaganda power. In those brother nations, such campaigns served as the preamble for an armed invasion by the main global military power."

The journalists claim the aim of the current US campaign of "lies, distortion, and manipulation" is the "overthrow President Hugo Chavez Frias' democratic government".

In February, the Venezuelan government publicly accused the US government of plotting to assassinate Chavez. Tensions were further heightened when the Venezuelan government announced it had detected the secret presence of "US Marines, along with military planes and amphibious vehicles" on the Caribbean island of Curacao, just 75 kilometres from the Venezuelan mainland, according to an Associated Press report on March 1.

The announcement, by Venezuelan Navy Commander Armando Laguna, sent a wave of panic in Venezuela about an "imminent US invasion", according to a March 1 Venezuela Analysis report.

National Assembly deputy William Lara claimed the US military presence was part of "a plan to intimidate and provoke by the US".

Venezuela Analysis reported on March 5 that the US ambassador to Venezuela, William Brownfield, had expressed regret at the "lack of communication" over the incident. The Vheadline website reported on March 8 that the Curacao government had categorically stated that it would not allow the island to be the base for any attack on Venezuela.

Venezuela's accusations against Washington were given added credibility when Venezuelan Vice-President Jose Rangel told the media that former US ambassador to Venezuela Charles Shapiro had informed him of a potential plot to kill Chavez.

According to a March 9 Vheadline report, current US ambassador Brownfield confirmed that Shapiro had informed the Venezuelan government that US officials had information of a potential assassination attempt. Brownfield denied that the US government was party to the plot.

However, during a visit to India in early March, Chavez publicly reiterated his accusation that the US was plotting to assassinate him, declaring that "if something happens to me, there is only one person responsible for it, and his name is George W. Bush".

Oil threat

According to a March 5 South Asia Media website report, Chavez repeated his threat to cease selling Venezuelan oil to the US in the event of any US or US-backed attack on Venezuela.

While Washington has been hostile to the Venezuelan government ever since Chavez's election in December 1998, a public campaign by both government officials and the US media has been underway since Condoleezza Rice became US secretary of state in January.

Referring to Chavez in a January 26 speech to a US Senate foreign relations committee, Rice said that Bush administration was "very concerned about a democratically elected leader who governs in an illiberal way".

This was the start of a ceaseless campaign against the Venezuelan government waged by US officials and the US media. Highlights have included the director of the CIA, Peter Goss, publicly targeting Venezuela as the leading Latin America nation the US is concerned about and a TV documentary run by Fox News in early February under the title The Iron Fist of Hugo Chavez.

The essence of the campaign has been to demonise Chavez, who has won nine national elections in six years, by claiming that he is moving to establish a dictatorship and using Venezuela's oil wealth to support "terrorists" in Colombia and "destabilising" Bolivia.

The Chavez government denies providing material assistance to any armed groups in Colombia or to any of the groups inside Bolivia that are organising ongoing protests against the neoliberal policies of the Bolivian government. The US government has provided no concrete evidence to support its charges.

Nonetheless, the US State Department, in its annual human rights report, released in February, accused the Venezuelan government of having a "poor" human rights record. The report singled out alleged harassment of political opponents and charged that Chavez government officials had "increased their control over the judicial system".

Rangel denounced the report as "more lies, more falsifications, more hypocrisy" and declared that the US had "no moral authority" to criticise Venezuela. He accused Washington of being the biggest violator of human rights in the world, singling out the "murder" of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan and the violation of human rights in the US-operated "concentration camp" at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The US human rights group Washington Office on Latin America also criticised the report for singling out Venezuela for alleged breaches of human rights while letting pro-US regimes like Colombia off the hook. Despite an increase in Colombia of politically motivated murders, the State Department report claimed the human rights situation there has improved.

US corporate interests

Behind Washington's propaganda campaign against Chavez, however, is not any concern about the growth of "tyranny" in Venezuela, but rather concern over the threat posed by the Chavez government to the profits of US corporations. Chavez is leading a popular process known as the "Bolivarian revolution" that is challenging US domination in the region and redistributing wealth and political power to the 80% of Venezuelans who live in poverty.

Venezuela supplies up to 15% of US oil imports and the US purchases up to 60% of Venezuela's oil output. A key goal of the Chavez government has been ensuring full government control over Venezuela's oil industry in order to use its earnings to eradicate poverty. This has put Venezuela at odds with US oil corporations, and therefore at odds with the US government.

In November, Chavez announced that his government would begin to enforce the law passed in 2001 that calls for a dramatic increase in the royalties foreign corporations pay to the Venezuelan government for the extraction of oil inside Venezuela. ExxonMobil has denounced the increase and is considering mounting a legal challenge, according to a February 28 Venezuela Analysis report.

In December, Venezuela signed an agreement with China that includes plans for Venezuela to sell large amounts of oil to China. Although China does not currently have the refining capacity to deal with Venezuela's high-sulphur oil, the agreement sparked concern among US commentators about the potential for Venezuela to either cease or significantly decrease its oil sales to the US.

This concern was further fuelled when, on February 3, Chavez publicly stated his displeasure at what he considered was Venezuelan oil "subsidising Mr Bush". Although Venezuela has repeatedly insisted it does not intend to cease oil sales to the US, Chavez is clearly looking to diversify Venezuela's oil markets and reduce its dependency on selling oil to the US.

The Venezuelan government has also begun cracking down on corporate tax evasion, fining and temporarily closing down businesses that fail to obey the law. McDonald's and Coca-Cola have been two high-profile targets of the campaign, forced to shut down their operations in Venezuela this year for two days for failing to have their books in order.

The anti-tax evasion campaign has netted the Venezuelan government a 50% increase in tax revenue, which the government is using to fund a 24% increase in the minimum wage.

On top of this, since winning an August 15 referendum on continuing his presidency, Chavez has been pushing for a significant deepening of the Venezuelan revolutionary process. In an article posted on March 8 on the Seven Oaks magazine website, Derrick O'Keefe commented: "There is no doubt that the United States government understands the significance of the current direction of the process in Venezuela. An oil-rich country with a radical, anti-imperialist government which has received repeated, indisputable democratic mandates and now advocates for socialism, the government in Caracas poses the gravest 'threat of a good example' since the Cuban Revolution of 1959."

The combination of Washington's isolation in Latin America and its need for Venezuelan oil is likely to keep at bay the threat of a direct military attack by the US, but it is also clear the Bush administration is preparing the ground for an attack of some sort against the Chavez government.

From Green Left Weekly, March 16, 2005.
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