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SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE: Chavez wins allies with oil, anti-Bush rhetoric

Published: September 25. 2006 3:00AM
Nation/World

Venezuela now tops U.S. in aid to Latin America

September 25, 2006
BY ROBERT COLLIER

CARACAS, Venezuela — He pops up almost everywhere — Africa, Asia, the Mideast, South America and at the United Nations last week, denouncing U.S. policy with revolutionary fervor.

Like a recurring bad dream for the Bush administration, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is molding himself into one of the world’s preeminent anti-American leaders.

Days before he addressed the United Nations — where he called President George W. Bush the devil — Chavez hosted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Caracas. They signed more than 20 trade and investment deals, and Chavez said he would cut off oil supplies to the United States if there were a U.S. military attack on Iran.

At this month’s summit in Cuba of the 116-nation Non-Aligned Movement, Chavez emerged as heir apparent to the ailing Cuban President Fidel Castro. The movement’s members comprise two-thirds of the world’s nations, mostly developing countries.

But Chavez has something Castro never had — huge oil revenues that will last for decades.

“Unlike Castro, who depended on the Soviet Union, Chavez is completely independent economically, which gives him a large margin to maneuver,” said Luis Lander, a professor of social sciences at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas.

He’s pouring aid into Cuba and Bolivia, providing discounted oil to Caribbean and Central American nations, buying high-tech weapons from Russia and spreading Venezuelan wealth around western Africa.

If Venezuela succeeds in its attempt to gain a 2-year rotating seat on the UN Security Council, Chavez will have a big megaphone on the global stage.

“Chavez is wildly popular in places where you wouldn’t imagine people had even heard of him,” said Carlos Mendoza, who was Venezuela’s ambassador to Russia until last year and previously was ambassador to Saudi Arabia. “In the gulf states, for example, everyone knows who he is; they admire him and love him.”

Chavez wields dollar diplomacy

And Chavez’s dollar diplomacy has begun to outstrip Washington’s.

U.S. government aid to Latin America was about $1.7 billion this year, of which $1 billion was military-related aid for antinarcotics programs. Precise figures aren’t available, but Venezuela’s foreign aid appears to be several times greater than the U.S. total for the region, according to a survey of publicly released data.

Chavez has rescued Cuba’s economy, providing an estimated $1.8 billion annually in oil and other investments. In Argentina, he bought $3.1 billion in government bonds in the past year, allowing the government to pay off its debts to the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

In Bolivia, he’s giving about $200 million in aid programs, ranging from military supplies to computers for schools. In Nicaragua and El Salvador, he has discounted oil and gasoline to leftist municipal governments.

In the Caribbean, 14 countries pay only part of the bill for Venezuelan fuel up front and can finance the rest over 25 years at low interest. In Jamaica, Chavez has given a $274-million loan for a highway and sports complex and $65 million for a refinery.

In one of his most grandiose plans, Chavez plans to build a 5,700-mile natural gas pipeline through South America, at a cost of up to $25 billion.

“Many Latin Americans, and people in other continents, are deciding they like his nationalism, his opposition to free-market economic policies and privatization, and they are realizing they can stand up to Washington,” said Steve Ellner, a professor of history at the Universidad de Oriente in the eastern city of Puerto La Cruz.

Bush a longtime target

Chavez’s UN speech isn’t the first time he’s aimed venom at Bush.

“You are ignoramus, you are a burro, Mr. Danger … or to say it to you in my bad English,” he said in a nationally televised speech in March, switching languages with an exaggerated accent, “you are a donkey, Mr. Danger. You are a donkey, Mr. George W. Bush.”

As his audience tittered, he returned to Spanish. “You are a coward, a killer, a genocider, an alcoholic, a drunk, a liar, an immoral person, Mr. Danger. You are the worst, Mr. Danger. The worst of this planet. … A psychologically sick man, I know it.”

Chavez accuses the Bush administration of plotting to overthrow him. U.S. officials deny such intent, though they frequently label Chavez a destabilizing influence and express support for Venezuela’s opposition groups.

“I view him as a threat of undermining democracy,” Bush said of Chavez in a Fox News interview July 31. “And I view him as a threat.”

In August, the Bush administration created a position of intelligence chief for Venezuela and Cuba.

Chavez nicknamed the director of the office, longtime CIA official Jack Patrick Maher, as “Jack the Ripper,” and said “the empire is organizing a plan for December or before December,” referring to Venezuela’s elections.

Groups that at the time were known to receive U.S. funding carried out a military-civilian coup in 2003 that briefly overthrew Chavez, and documents released in 2004 revealed that U.S. officials had advance knowledge of the coup plotting.

The Bush administration has denied involvement in the coup attempt, though it expressed support for the junta installed by the coup.

Government documents recently obtained by the Associated Press show that opposition groups have been receiving about $5 million a year through State Department channels. The administration has refused to disclose the names of about half of the groups, saying to do so would endanger their security.

Jeremy Bigwood, an analyst at the Center for Economic Policy Research, a liberal Washington think tank, last year sued the Agency for International Development, the State Department’s foreign aid arm, arguing that all such recipients should be identified because the aid programs aren’t part of covert intelligence work. A ruling is expected this year.

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