Chávez Expands and Hardens His Diplomatic Thrust

CARACAS – After returning from a whirlwind tour abroad and as he prepares for his next one, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has kept busy on the diplomatic front, visiting convalescent Cuban leader Fidel Castro on his 80th birthday, replacing his foreign minister, and receiving Colombia’s new foreign minister.

The Venezuelan government has expanded its diplomatic agenda, striking oil and gas deals with its neighbors in South America as well as distant developing nations like Mali, Indonesia, and Vietnam, while it disputes with Guatemala a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

But at the same time it has taken a harder-line stance, with its $5 billion defense deals with Russia and Spain and its continued political confrontation with Washington, and by pushing relations with Israel to the verge of complete rupture and placing the Foreign Ministry in the hands of Nicolás Maduro, a hardened Chávez supporter.

Maduro, 43, a former bus driver and trade unionist and a leader of Chávez’s governing Fifth Republic Movement party, served as speaker of parliament since January 2005.

The Venezuelan Congress, whose 167 members are all government supporters since the badly weakened and fractured opposition boycotted the October 2005 legislative elections, has elected Maduro’s wife Cilia Flores to replace him as speaker – a post over which Chávez has the last word, according to both political analysts and members of parliament.

On his return early this month from a tour of Argentina, Belarus, Brazil, Iran, Mali, Russia, and Vietnam, which also included brief stopovers in Benin, Portugal, and Qatar, Chávez appointed Maduro as foreign minister, replacing Alí Rodríguez, a former president of the Venezuelan oil giant PDVSA and former secretary-general of OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries), who has suffered health problems since late last year.

“Nicolás has great potential, as he has demonstrated, and has acquired extensive experience,” Rodríguez said when he handed the post over to Maduro, who frequently traveled abroad as speaker of parliament.

Maduro, who has not yet provided an overview of his plans as foreign minister, traveled with Chávez to Havana Sunday to visit Castro as he was recovering from intestinal surgery. They then made a stopover in Jamaica to expand an oil cooperation agreement.. And on Tuesday, they met with Colombia’s new foreign minister, María Consuelo Araújo.

Former Venezuelan deputy foreign minister and ambassador to the United Nations Milos Alcalay told IPS that “Maduro’s appointment further politicizes Venezuela’s diplomacy, which no longer responds to the state but to a party, and which is now controlled by someone who does not present independent proposals but says ‘yes, my commander’ to whatever the president orders.”

The president of the Colegio de Internacionalistas de Venezuela (an association of experts in international relations), Juan Contreras, said the designation of Maduro “exacerbates the sense of frustration among Foreign Ministry career officials because of the disdain for professionalism shown by the selection of officials without the necessary training and experience.”

Rodríguez, however, pointed out that the Venezuelan constitution and laws have consistently granted the president direct control over foreign relations.

Under that premise, Chávez has personally begun to campaign for a seat for Venezuela on the UN Security Council for the 2007-2008 period. He has achieved the support of the rest of the full members of the Mercosur trade bloc (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay) – which Venezuela joined this year – the Caribbean Community (Caricom), and the countries he visited on his late July-early August tour.

The president also plans to visit China, Malaysia, and Angola next week.

In the meantime, his administration has won sympathy in the Arab and Muslim world due to its loud condemnation of Israel’s military offensive against Lebanon. Chávez, who recalled Venezuela’s charges d’affaires from Israel, said he had “no interest in maintaining diplomatic relations, or offices, or businesses, or anything else with a state like Israel.”

In virtually every public appearance he makes, Chávez reiterates that his government’s broader struggle is against Washington’s foreign policy, and predicts that U.S. imperialism will disappear in the next few decades.

Meanwhile, Caracas has been forging “strategic alliances” with countries like Russia, China, Iran, and the rest of the members of OPEC.

Washington, for its part, maintains a constant barrage of criticism against the Chávez administration, lashing out at everything from its purchases of weapons from Russia to the supposed “lack of democracy” in Venezuela, while backing Guatemala in its bid for a UN Security Council seat.

When he presented Maduro as his new foreign minister, Chávez said “I have never deceived anyone, and I have no cards up my sleeve, and I have dared to tell the country and the world over the past two years that we must follow the path of socialism.”

He also underscored the importance of combining oil and diplomacy, because “in the case of Venezuela, our oil and energy strategy cannot be separated from diplomacy.”

To illustrate, he mentioned his invitation to Russia to participate in the “great gas pipeline of the south,” which is to run from gas fields in Venezuela’s Caribbean coastal region to the Río de la Plata estuary between Argentina and Uruguay, supplying those two countries as well as Brazil and Paraguay along the way.

Chávez has been promoting and signing agreements in practically every country he visits, creating trade and technology transfer opportunities and joint ventures in areas like agriculture, mining, oil, gas, and petrochemicals.

Some of his critics in the region, like Peruvian President Alan García and President Roberto Bolaños in Nicaragua, have accused Chávez of using Venezuela’s booming oil profits to impose his political agenda.

But while Chávez pulled Venezuela out of the Andean Community trade bloc – now made up of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru – this year after Bogotá and Lima negotiated free trade agreements with the United States, Caracas has not stopped doing business with those two countries.

During this week’s visit by Colombian Foreign Minister Araújo – who said Venezuela is one of her government’s priorities – Chávez renewed his commitment to building a natural gas pipeline to run between the two countries, and to bolstering bilateral trade, which stood at $3.26 billion in 2005 and could climb to $5 billion a year.

With his intense diplomatic activity, Chávez has been paying little attention to domestic questions in Venezuela, where he looks set for reelection on Dec. 3.

The polls indicate that he will take at least 55 percent of the vote in the presidential elections in which no opposition candidate appears to pose a real threat.

Although the election campaign officially began on Aug. 4, neither the president nor his rivals have held any rallies, and no campaign posters or media spots are even to be seen yet.