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President Hugo Chavez Travels the World


Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been a world traveler of late. He has visited China, Vietnam, Iran, Syria, Russia, Belarus and Mali, among other nations. He has blasted the United States and touted Venezuela's bid for a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council.

Hugo Chavez got a hero's welcome in Syria last month after the Venezuelan leader compared Israel to Nazi Germany and described Israeli air strikes against Lebanon as genocide. In Damascus, he repeatedly railed against the United States, saying, "the North American empire, no matter what it does, will be defeated as a paper tiger."

Chavez has made similar comments about the United States and U.S. policies in stops around the world, including London. "It is imperialism of the kind that hurts so many countries around the world."

Venezuela-watchers say Mr. Chavez wants to cast his nation as a new world power and take his anti-U.S. message to a global stage.

Analyst Michael Shifter at the Inter-American Dialogue organization in Washington says, "I think it is very hard to interpret his itinerary as anything other than an attempt to build a coalition, an alliance, that is opposed to the U.S. agenda."

Venezuela's oil revenues have tripled in recent years. That has given the country enormous economic clout that Mr. Chavez appears determined to translate into political clout.

"The fact that he does have so much money, the fact that the energy market has been so favorable to Venezuela, and that he has not had any opposition within Venezuela -- it is not surprising that it goes to his head a little bit, and that he is feeling very, very confident and does things that are quite brazen,” says Shifter.

While in China, Mr. Chavez branded the United States a dictatorship. He said Americans are suffering under a "police state" that persecutes and neglects the poor. He habitually refers to the United States as an empire, and President Bush as "Mr. Danger."

The rhetoric serves a domestic political purpose, according to Venezuelan analyst and pollster Luis Vicente Leon. "Making Bush out as the enemy, creating a foreign enemy, can be seen as a strategy to unite the country. Creating an enemy will get political constituencies in line, and it also provides a scapegoat for a future crisis if oil revenues fall."

Venezuela is campaigning hard for a temporary seat on the U.N. Security Council. Many in Washington fear that would provide Mr. Chavez endless opportunities for mischief on matters of global importance. The Bush administration opposes Venezuela's Security Council bid, backing Guatemala instead.

Analysts say Venezuela's expanding economic ties with nations stretching from the Americas to Africa to Asia will boost the country's chances of a Security Council seat.

But many of Venezuela's economic partners appear reluctant to embrace President Chavez's call to unite against the United States. China is investing heavily in Venezuela's energy sector. Yet Mr. Chavez's anti-U.S. rhetoric was met with polite silence in Beijing. Earlier in Russia, President Vladimir Putin stressed that a multi-billion dollar arms sale to Venezuela should not be seen as a new military alliance between Moscow and Caracas.

"The relationship between Russia and Venezuela,” said Mr. Putin, “is not aimed against any other country, but is aimed at developing the economies of our two states and improving the lives of our citizens."

Mr. Chavez's most enthusiastic reception came in Syria and Iran. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad described him as his "brother."

Foreign travels may boost Hugo Chavez's prestige. But Inter-American Dialogue's Michael Shifter says they carry some political risks. "I think there are questions being raised by Venezuelans -- why is he making so many deals and being such a globetrotter when there are such serious problems to deal with at home?"

Despite the war of words between Washington and Caracas, the United States remains the number one consumer of Venezuelan oil. Venezuela provides about 15 percent of U.S. petroleum needs. U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela William Brownfield provides a perspective. "Last year, commerce between the United States and Venezuela reached $38 billion. The United States remains Venezuela's principal market, and Venezuela is the United States' third-biggest market in Latin America."

Venezuela says it wants to sell more of its oil to China and other nations. But energy experts say a shift away from U.S. sales would be costly, impractical and unlikely to occur any time in the near future.

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