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Chavez's threat festers unnoticed

By DAVID ADAMS, Times Latin America Correspondent
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 12, 2003

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has made a habit of saying the first thing that comes into his head.

His choice of words -- often politically extreme and insulting -- make him sound like a totalitarian hot head.

But until recently no one took him too seriously. His bark seemed a lot worse than his bite.

In fact, early on in Chavez's four-year-old administration, the U.S. ambassador, John Maisto, famously asserted that it was actions, not words, that mattered.

It became known as the "Maisto doctrine." The ambassador was later picked by the Bush administration to head the Western Hemisphere Affairs section at the National Security Council, giving him overall direction of U.S. policy in Latin America.

But now Maisto is the one eating his words.

While Chavez still has a tendency to shoot his mouth off, there is no longer any doubting his intentions.

After surviving a two-month-long strike led by the political opposition, Chavez has given notice that he plans to accelerate his so-called "Bolivarian revolution."

Last month he announced exchange controls that he says will be used to suffocate his enemies in the import-driven private sector. "No one can buy a single dollar in Venezuela without the permission of the revolutionary government," he told a crowd of cheering supporters. "Not a single dollar more for the coupmongers or the terrorists," he added, using his favorite two words to describe his opponents.

At the same time, the government filed legal complaints against the four main private television stations as a first step toward muzzling the opposition-dominated media. Chavez has also proposed adding 10 judges to the Supreme Court in order to quash any last vestige of independence.

Critics say Chavez is in the final stages of turning Venezuela into a Cuban-style communist state. They add it's taken a long time for the world -- including the United States -- to wake up to that fact.

"The U.S. has greatly underestimated the situation in Venezuela and what's coming in the next few years," said Alberto Garrido, one of Venezuela's top political consultants and the author of several books on Chavez. "It's all there in writing, it's just that no one has read it."

In one of his books, titled The Secret Story of the Bolivarian Revolution, Garrido used previously unpublished documents and interviews with Chavez's political mentors to paint a disturbing picture of a movement with deeper and more radical roots than anyone realized.

It's a stunningly detailed account of a clandestine revolutionary movement that, like Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida, worked secretly under the noses of authorities for decades, recruiting military officers and training civilians for an assault on power.

Garrido and others believe Chavez is hell-bent on exploiting the country's state-owned oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, or PdVSA, to finance his revolutionary project.

"Chavez believes that oil is the weapon that is going to bring down the capitalist system," he said.

The fate of Chavez has major implications for both the United States and Cuba, which depend heavily on Venezuela for oil. The strike has slashed Venezuelan oil output to barely one-third of its normal levels.

Some observers liken Venezuela's situation to two other former major oil producers: Libya and Iran. Both countries witnessed a dramatic cutback in oil production after revolutionary episodes in 1969 and 1979, respectively.

Throughout his presidency Chavez has battled PdVSA's management, trying to destroy the autonomy that many say was the secret to the company's much-vaunted efficiency.

Before the strike Chavez's efforts to wrest control of PdVSA had failed. But when oil company executives threw their weight behind the opposition strike in December, they miscalculated badly.

Two months later, thousands of PdVSA's top managers have been fired and Chavez is firmly in control. It remains to be seen if the new, inexperienced managers can bring back production to normal levels.

Either way, the United States faces a difficult choice. Does it place support for democracy above or below its need to secure oil supplies? While Washington may not like Chavez, he has pledged to continue to supply the United States with oil.

It was in the name of democracy -- and to prevent what it feared was the spread of Cuban-inspired communism -- that the Reagan administration became deeply involved in Central America in the 1980s. But the world has moved on since the Cold War. Now the White House is fighting a new enemy: terrorism.

Meanwhile, no one in Washington seems to be paying much attention to the spread of left-wing ideas -- not to mention anti-Americanism -- in its own back yard.

-- David Adams may be contacted at

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