Politics is politics, and business is business between Chavez and Bush

Apr 26, 2004 02:00 AM

by Dudley Althaus

Houston's newest corporate citizen ultimately answers to a leftist leader who is one of the Bush administration's harshest foreign critics. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez holds a firm grip on government-owned Petroleos de Venezuela, known as PdVSA, which is Citgo's parent company, after he purged its management of political opponents last year.
Chavez, 49, has repeatedly accused US officials of scheming to overthrow him and of aiding the opposition hoping to vote him out of office in a recall election. Chavez earlier blamed Bush alone for the ongoing bloodshed in Iraq. Earlier this year, Chavez publicly referred to Bush with a blunt expletive. But politics is politics, and business is business.

Venezuela's business is selling oil, mostly to the United States. And analysts say that neither Chavez nor US officials want hard feelings to get in the way of supply and demand. Chavez needs oil revenues to keep his government afloat and fund the social programs that have kept him popular with many of the country's poorest people. At a time of concerns about the stability of Mideast oil supplies and about rising world energy demand, US officials want to assure that Venezuela's exports remain stable.
On one level, "the US-Venezuela relationship has never been worse," said Michael Shifter, an analyst at Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank. But, Shifter said, "the oil is still flowing, and Chavez has had a very pragmatic relationship" regarding supplying oil to the United States.
"Chavez believes that gives him the space to do what he wants," Shifter said. "And he's right. Instability in Venezuela is not helpful."

A former army colonel who staged a failed coup in 1992, Chavez was overwhelmingly elected Venezuela's president six years ago and again in 2000. Labelling himself a revolutionary, he has repeatedly called for a populist movement throughout Latin America that rejects both global capitalism and US influence in regional affairs. Washington hasn't been amused.
"The government of Mr Bush made the decision three years ago to overthrow the Venezuelan government, only to get the surprise of the century," Chavez said in a speech earlier this month on the second anniversary of the failed coup.

Indeed, senior US officials spoke favourably of the coup attempt in April 2002, overturning several decades of policy aimed at supporting democratic government in Latin America. But US officials have steadfastly denied any involvement in plotting to overthrow Chavez.
Chavez's opponents in Venezuela's business elite led a general strike in December 2002, shutting down Petroleos de Venezuela and most other industries. The strike crippled the country's economy and sharply curtailed its oil exports.

But Chavez broke the strike last spring by firing half of Petroleos de Venezuela's 40,000 employees and replacing most of the oil monopoly's rebellious senior managers with others loyal to him. In the months since, the seemingly unstoppable civil movement to drive Chavez from office has stagnated and splintered. A poll released earlier suggested for the first time that Chavez likely would win any new election, even if the push for a recall should succeed.
"The real chances of removing Chavez by a recall are fairly improbable," Luis Vicente Leon, a political analyst, said by phone from Caracas. "Chavez is the representative of Venezuela, whether legitimately or not. The United States will have to deal with him."

Chavez and the Bush administration will likely continue their war of words, Leon said, but will do nothing to profoundly disrupt a mutually beneficial oil relationship.
"I don't think it's going to go beyond the speeches and rhetoric," Leon said.

Source: Houston Chronicle
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