In search of new frontiers

Print edition : October 08, 2004

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jesus Amaldo Perez in New Delhi on September 2. - RAJEEV BHATT

Invitations for joint ventures and investments in the oil sector form part of Venezuelan Foreign Minister's talks with Indian leaders during his recent visit to New Delhi.

IN the first week of September, New Delhi had a visitor from the South American continent - Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jesus Arnaldo Perez. His three-day official visit to India came soon after the thumping victory registered by President Hugo Chavez in the referendum on his presidency in mid-August.

Venezuela under Chavez has assumed a high profile on the international stage, mainly because of his radical brand of politics and the tremendous economic clout the country enjoys owing to its position as the world's fifth biggest producer of petroleum. The bulk of Venezuela's oil goes to the United States. The downturn in diplomatic ties between Washington and Caracas has not disrupted the supply of oil. In fact, American oil companies are queuing up to do even more business with the Venezuelan government (though the latter does not want to be too dependent on them), despite the Bush administration's attempts at destabilising the Chavez government. Washington is still refusing to acknowledge formally the victory of Chavez in the internationally monitored referendum.

During his visit to New Delhi, the Venezuelan Minister emphasised that his government remained opposed to the " neo-liberal" programme promoted by Washington and the international financial institutions. He revealed that President Chavez would propose the creation of an "International Humanitarian Fund" (IHF) to tackle the problems of the developing world in his address to the United Nations General Assembly in late September. The IHF would prescribe a humane recipe for development, unlike the International Monetary Fund (IMF) prescription.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at his first press conference after winning the recall referendum, on August 16 at the presidential palace in Caracas. In the background is a portrait of Venezuelan liberator Simon Bolivar.-AFP /ANDREW ALVAREZ

One important reason why the Venezuelan Foreign Minister was in New Delhi was to spread the message that his country would welcome joint ventures and investments in the oil sector. Chavez has made it clear on many occasions that his country would prefer collaboration with other foreign public sector companies than with the representatives of Big Oil, the American energy industry. Vast new reserves of oil are being discovered in central and eastern Venezuela.

Perez said that his government's agenda was "mass empowerment". In this context, he said Venezuela had a lot to learn from the literacy programmes and political decentralisation being implemented in different parts of India, by progressive State governments. He described his visit to India as "very successful" and added that the Gandhian ideology was a source of inspiration for the Bolivarian ideology. The ideology inspired by the liberator of Latin America, Simon Bolivar, aims to reunite once again Latin America on an anti-imperialist platform.

The Minister told Frontline that the results of the recent referendum reflected the "complete defeat of the Opposition". At the same time, the Minister emphasised that the August 15 referendum was also "a day of reconciliation for the people of Venezuela because they rallied around the country's Constitution and embraced participatory democracy". Perez said that 10 million Venezuelans participated in the referendum. Of them, 40 per cent voted against Chavez while 60 per cent voted in his favour, reflecting the spirit of reconciliation in the country.

"At the international level it shows a complete failure of the American policy towards Latin America. The threat to democracy in Venezuela was coming from the U.S. They made all attempts to stage a coup d'etat in the country. After the referendum, all doubts have been cleared about the legitimacy of the presidency of Hugo Chavez," said Perez. The Minister recounted the concerted attempts by Washington to manipulate the media to make them give a distorted picture of the situation in Venezuela and the Bolivarian revolution.

Perez said that despite the political turbulence, economic relations with Washington were good. Nearly 75 per cent of Venezuela's oil exports are routed to the U.S. "Venezuela sends 1.5 million barrels of oil a day to the U.S. We also have investments in seven refineries in the U.S. and 19,000 service stations. We supply 15 per cent of the oil requirements of the U.S., which means that it is a very important relationship," he said. At the same time, the Minister emphasised that Venezuela wanted a relationship based on mutual respect. Venezuela, he said, would never use "petrol as a weapon" to pressure the U.S. as his country was against "all kinds of embargos or blockades, which constitute interference in another country's affairs".

An oil rig near Cabimas, 500 km west of Caracas. Venezuela is the world's fifth biggest producer of petroleum.-ANA MARIA OTERO/AP

Talking about his country's relationship with Cuba, the Minister clarified that there were no "special oil prices" for its neighbours who were dependent on imported oil. There are agreements with countries like Cuba under which petrol is sold at a mutually agreed price. If the price of oil goes up in the international market, then Venezuela provides credit to these countries to make up for the difference and provide for long-term financing for the purchase of oil. At the same time, it creates a `Fund for Development' of the region. Developing countries can make use of Fund for Development projects such as those for road building. "There are no special prices as prices are based on agreements. We have an agreement with Mexico, called the San Jose Agreement. The Energy agreements of Caracas signed in 2001-02 are aimed at covering the energy bill of the poorer nations, such as Caribbean and Central American countries."

The Minister said that Venezuela was thinking of signing similar agreements with the most indebted countries of the African continent. "The entire human kind is in need of energy. That is why we make our petrol easily available," he said. The continuing boom in oil prices has helped reinvigorate the Venezuelan economy and boost spending in the social sector. However, Perez would prefer that the oil prices stabilise around $33 a barrel. Venezuela, he said, had created a band of prices. "A just price for petrol is that which is sufficient for Venezuela to finance its social projects, to pay off its foreign debt," said Perez.

The Minister was also of the opinion that a regime change in Washington would do little to improve relations between the two countries. "Whoever wins, whether it is John Kerry or George Bush, they should recognise that the way Washington handled its relationship with Venezuela was wrong. Kerry has already admitted that it was wrong. Now Bush should also do the same. Bush has admitted that he was wrong about Iraq and about the weapons of mass destruction there."

When asked for his views on the recent pardon given to four convicted terrorists by the outgoing President of Panama, Mireya Moscoso, the Venezuelan Minster described the action as a "very big mistake on the part of the ex-President. It appeared like a provocation. It sends a wrong signal in the fight against terrorism". Under pressure from Washington, the four Cuban exiles having close links with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the U.S. were allowed in August to go free. The four were convicted by a Panamanian Court and sentenced to long prison terms for their role in the plot to assassinate Cuban President Fidel Castro during an international summit in Panama City. Among those released is the notorious terrorist Luis Possada Carriles. He had escaped from a prison in Venezuela where he was serving a jail term for his role in the bombing of an Air Cubana passenger plane in 1976, which killed 73 persons. He has also admitted to six hotel bombings in Havana, which killed a tourist and several others. All the four freed terrorists were flown by a private jet to Miami in the U.S., where they received a rapturous welcome from the right-wing Cuban exile community.

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