Venezuelan warns of U.S. overthrow

Speech points to growing friction with Bush

Robert Collier
San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writer
26 February 2005

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Ali Rodriguez warned Friday that the Bush administration may be plotting to overthrow his country's leftist leader, Hugo Chavez, in what he called a throwback to Washington's long history of gunboat diplomacy in Latin America.

In a speech at the Commonwealth Club in San Franciso, Rodriguez added fuel to the burning dispute between the White House and Chavez, saying U.S. officials' recent criticisms of the Venezuelan president were "ignorant" and "arrogant."

"There have been lots of attacks against Venezuela from the United States recently, and we have lots of prior experience with this sort of thing," Rodriquez said, citing successful CIA-influenced overthrows of leftist leaders in Guatemala in 1955, the Dominican Republic in 1965 and Chile in 1973.

Rodriguez, one of Chavez's closest advisers, has been the main strategist behind Venezuela's push to rally other leading oil exporters to cut production and jack up world oil prices. A Marxist guerrilla in the 1960s, Rodriquez later became secretary-general of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, as well as Venezuela's oil minister and president of its state'owned oil monopoly, Petroleos de Venezuela, S.A.

In the escalating rhetoric between Caracas and Washington, Chavez warned in a radio address Sunday of a U.S. assassination plot and threatened to stop supplying oil to the United States if it makes an attempt on his life.

Condoleezza Rice, in her Senate confirmation hearings lst month to become Secretary of State, said the United States "cannot remain indifferent to what Venezuela is doing beyond its borders," referring primarily to Chavez's close relations with Cuba and his support for leftist movements in the region.

Yet Rodriguez's visit to the Bay Area illustrated how Venezuela, as the fourth-largest source of imported oil to the United States, has clout no other Latin American nation can match.

Rodriguez spent Thursday negotiating with officials at Chevron-Texaco's headquarters in San Ramon. At the Commonwealth Club, he was accompanied by Ali Moshiri, managing director of Chevron-Texaco's Latin American division. The oil giant is a multi-billion-dollar investor in Venezuela, producing large quantities of oil and building two huge plants to produce liquefied natural gas for the U.S. markets.

"Strategically, Venezuela is very important. We believe it has the potential to provide 35 percent of U.S. energy, in oil and natural gas," Moshiri said after Rodriguez's speech, adding, "Venezuela has been treating the private sector very well."

Chavez survived a recall vote in August with 59 percent of the vote, and his treasury receives $30 billion annually in oil revenues.

"The United States hasn't faced anything like Chavez for a very long time," said Riordan Roett, director of the Western Hemisphere program at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

Roett described the divisions between Washington and Caracas as the Bush administration's "idological distaste" for Chavez and the Venezuelan's "grandiose ideas" of uniting Latin America under a nationalist, semi-revolutionary banner.

"We thought populist leftist leaders were buried in history," Roett said, "but the United States and the hemisphere are faced with the most truculent and ambitious leader in decades, and he is likely to grow more powerful."

After a visit to Moscow in December, Chavez angered the Bush administration by announcing that he was purchasing guns and warplanes. The White House protested to the Kremlin, and U.S. officials warned that the arms could be sent to the leftist guerillas in neighboring Colombia.

26 February 2005

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