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April 5, 2005

Hugo Chavez: Castro's Mini-Me

By

'One darned thing after another': That's how former Secretary of State Dean Acheson once defined foreign policy. The latest "darned thing" for the United States is Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

For no apparent reason, the leftist strongman is arming Venezuela to the teeth. He's also supporting local narcoterrorists and other Latin revolutionaries.

Chavez idolizes Cuba's Fidel Castro, is chummy with Libya's Moammar Khadafy and was a Saddam Hussein pal. He's made nasty remarks about President Bush and "suggestive" public comments about Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

According to Gerver Torres, a former Venezuelan government minister, Chavez's "main motivation now is to do everything he possibly can to negatively affect the United States, Bush in particular . . . trying to bring together all the enemies of the United States."

It's tempting to write off Chavez simply as Latin America's latest tin-pot dictator, but that would be a mistake. Venezuela's own "Fidelito" has the potential to cause real trouble for the United States - right in our own backyard.

Recognizing our economy's Achilles' heel, Chavez has threatened to cut off oil exports to the United States. Venezuela is our fourth-largest source of oil, providing 15 percent of U.S. oil needs (1.5 million barrels a day). This threat can't be ignored.

Curtailing exports would push already high American gas prices through the roof. Cognizant of this fact, Chavez recently proclaimed: "We have invaded the United States but with our oil."

Sure, it would be painful for Venezuela to cut off the 60 percent of its oil exports bound for the American market. But Venezuela is already looking to diversify its oil clientele beyond Uncle Sam.

Last December, Caracas struck a huge deal with Beijing for oil and gas sales and investment in Venezuela's energy sector.

Venezuela is stirring the security pot, too, sowing fear among its neighbors. From Russia, Chavez is buying 50 advanced MiG-29 fighters, 40 helicopter gunships and 100,000 AK-47 assault rifles. He's also bought arms from Spain and Brazil.

A cashiered former army colonel, Chavez also plans to increase the size of the army reserve as "an honorable answer to President Bush's intention of being the master of the world."

Gen. Bantz Craddock, commander in chief of the U.S. Southern Command, finds Venezuela's weapon extravaganza worrisome because Chavez's motives are unclear. "We're wondering just what the intent here is," the general told the Senate in recent testimony.

One of Washington's main concerns is the possibility of a conventional war between Venezuela and its neighbor Colombia, the U.S.'s main regional ally. At a minimum, Venezuela's oil-induced buying binge could set off a regional arms race.

There's also the possibility that some of el presidente's new "toys," especially the AK-47s and ammunition, could fall into the hands of Colombian FARC narcoterrorists.

The FARC is seeking to overthrow the government of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. Bogota received some $3 billion in U.S. assistance over the last several years to support its fight against narcotraffickers and leftist rebel groups.

Chavez is rumored to be supporting the FARC, letting it use the Colombian-Venezuelan border area to recuperate and resupply.

Elsewhere, Chavez is mentoring Bolivian revolutionary Evo Morales, whose comrades recently tried to force President Carlos Mesa's resignation in an effort to take control of the National Assembly.

In Peru, it's been alleged that Chavez bankrolled the rogue army officer who tried to incite December's rebellion against President Alejandro Toledo. Chavez denies all of this, of course.

Many Americans will find it hard to take Chavez seriously, but his capacity for regional troublemaking shouldn't be discounted, especially as oil prices rocket.

Fortunately, the Bush administration recognizes this and is beginning to craft a new policy to deal with Chavez. The best approach will include working with other regional leaders to contain and isolate him, while not inflaming the dictator's popular support at home.

Chavez recently announced his intent to export his "Bolivarian revolution" (read: Cuban revolution). Considering his disastrous socialist economic and repressive political record at home, we'd better stop him before he gets started.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow. E-mail: peterbrookes@heritage.org

First appeared in the New York Post

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