Viewpoint: China-Venezuela pact worries Washington

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Inaugural festivities are over, and the second term has begun. While the focus and the rhetoric of “spreading freedom” were concentrated chiefly on Iraq, trouble is brewing at our back door.

The administration has spent little time looking south, but it is beginning to get increasingly nervous as China cozies up to Latin American governments and their natural resource prizes.

Venezuela is a case in point. That nation holds the largest proven oil reserves in this hemisphere—77.8 billion barrels. Venezuela is one of our top four suppliers of crude oil. It is just a short shipping distance away, compared to the weeks-long trip to bring Mideast oil to our shores.

Now China is hungrily licking its lips for a share of that liquid gold in return for investment in Venezuelan agriculture and business and financing to develop some unused oil fields. That makes the Bush White House very nervous.

But it also hands the newly anointed president and his lieutenants a dilemma. Relations between the two countries have been strained since the U.S. tried, more than once, to oust feisty Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. The charges and counter-charges hurled back and forth have become increasingly bitter.

Much as the Bushites would like to see Chavez gone and a more compliant leader in his place, they cannot risk an oil crisis with the government that supplies between 11 and 15 percent of our imported crude. Our earlier support of dictators like Somoza, Batista, Pinochet and Duvalier was not lost on Venezuelans and other Latins. We are seen as “imperialist gringos” (

Into that vacuum stepped China and signed a $3 billion a year deal to increase its trade with Venezuela. That has prompted Washington to begin looking at contingency plans, as requested by Sen. Richard Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

While Colin Powell served as secretary of state, he occasionally acknowledged Latin American issues, primarily trade, market expansion and the need for more democracy.

His apparent successor, Condoleezza Rice, however, has hardly mentioned the continent south of us. Other than attacking Cuba as an “outpost of tyranny” and terming President Chavez’s government “very deeply troubling,” she has had little to say.

Chavez was elected president in 1998. He has publicly decried the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and has threatened to cut off oil sales to the U.S. Since his election, the U.S. has given more than $1 million in tax dollars to Venezuelan opposition groups to support training programs under the National Endowment for Democracy—a private agency entirely financed by Washington (

During her recent confirmation hearing, Rice came into conflict with Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-RI, on the topic of Venezuela and Chavez. Sen. Chafee said he had just returned from Venezuela and had met with President Chavez. He told Rice: “Here he has gone before his people, high, high turnout. Just had a referendum, and as one of the people from our embassy said, they cleaned their clocks and kicked their butts. It seems to me to say derogatory things about him may be disrespectful to him, but also to the Venezuelan people. How do you react to that?”

Rice replied: “I have nothing but good things to say about the Venezuelan people. They are a remarkable people, and if you notice, Senator Chafee, I was not making derogatory comments. I was simply recognizing that there are unhelpful and unconstructive trends going on in Venezuelan policies. This is not personal.”

Moments later, Rice added: “I have said we hope that the government of Venezuela will continue to recognize what has been a mutually beneficial relationship on energy and that we can continue to pursue that. We certainly hope that we can continue to pursue counter-drug activities in the Andean region, and Venezuela participates in that. But I have to say that for the most part, the activities of the Venezuelan government in the last couple of years have been pretty unconstructive.”

To that comment, Sen. Chafee retorted: “Well, thank you very much. I’ll go back to what I said earlier. It seems disrespectful to the Venezuelan people. They have spoken.”

It’s difficult to get much more disrespectful than backing a coup, which plentiful evidence shows this government did. Chavez has survived all such attempts, and he has issued a blunt warning to the U.S. administration not to try that tactic again. He took special note of the Bush-backed ouster of duly elected Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide and said that Venezuela “has enough allies on this continent to start a 100-year war.” He added that in that event, “U.S. citizens could forget about ever getting Venezuelan oil (”

That is not welcome news to Washington policymakers, who continue to have real difficulties in finding and maintaining dependable sources of oil. While Saudi oil production shows signs of declining, and Iraqi resistance fighters sabotage pipelines in that country and guerrillas in Colombia do likewise, civil unrest in Nigeria makes that source questionable. All this can only make U.S. oil managers more desperate.

Chavez is forcing the Bush administration to look south and some speculate that the entry of China into that arena may trigger talk of reviving the Monroe Doctrine. Others say that as China aggressively moves to meet the growing demands of its economy for more energy, a clash with this country appears inevitable somewhere down the road.

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