Venezuela uses oil sales, army buildup to defy U.S.
By Gary Marx
Tribune foreign correspondent
Published July 15, 2005
LOS ALTOS MIRANDINOS, Venezuela -- As military officials barked orders, more than 300 civilians gathered in the morning hours to practice saluting and precision marching in preparation for possible war.
There were homemakers and retirees, lawyers and street vendors, all volunteers of a newly expanded army reserve force that President Hugo Chavez is organizing to defend the country against the United States and other threats.
"The United States is the only superpower, but if the people are united we can defeat them," said Arnaldo Cerniar, a 65-year-old retired credit officer who began training three months ago. "We need to defend the country against any aggression."
Chavez's recent decision to expand Venezuela's reserve force to as many as 2 million people is only one indication of the growing tensions between this oil-rich nation and the U.S. Although Venezuela continues to sell large quantities of oil to the United States, Chavez has threatened to cut off supplies in the event of an American invasion. U.S. officials have dismissed the idea of a military attack on Venezuela.
Nonetheless, Chavez is seeking to diversify crude-oil sales away from the U.S. and has reoriented Venezuela's foreign policy toward its Latin American neighbors and other nations, such as Iran. Chavez recently signed a pact with 13 Caribbean nations to sell them discounted oil and has pushed oil and gas accords with South American nations to counter U.S. power in the region.
So far, U.S. efforts to isolate Chavez diplomatically have failed.
At a recent meeting of the Organization of American States, the U.S. couldn't muster enough support to set up a permanent committee to monitor democracy in the region, a proposal that was widely interpreted as aimed at Venezuela.
William LeoGrande, dean of the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington and an expert on Latin America, said OAS members rejected the measure because Chavez is democratically elected and because the U.S. is disliked in a region where free-market measures have failed to ease poverty.
He said the OAS failure leaves the U.S. with few options to contain Chavez.
"The problem the administration has is that there are not many levers the U.S. can use," LeoGrande said. "As a principal supplier of oil, Venezuela is still commercially important to the U.S."
Many argue that the U.S. criticism has allowed Chavez to benefit politically by playing the nationalist card.
"Every time Condoleezza Rice attacks Chavez, his approval rating goes
up 2 or 3 percentage points," said Luis Vicente Leon, a pollster and Chavez