Tales from the Trail

Washington Extra – Waiting for Hugo

Grab a chair, some drinks and snacks and get ready for the show.

The United States slapped sanctions on Venezuela’s state oil giant PVDSA for trading with Iran, a move that could worsen Washington’s already sour relations with Caracas. Now we’re waiting for President Hugo Chavez to respond.

Expect a lot of noise, in typical Chavez fashion. In the warm-up act, one ally called the sanctions “ridiculous” and accused the United States of wanting to “once again…turn into the global policeman.”

Chavez himself might make some threats against his biggest foe, including an old one about cutting off oil supplies to the United States. He’s done it before — in 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2010, and maybe more times than we can count.

But it never comes to anything. The fact that 45 percent of Venezuela’s oil goes to the United States might explain why. With that kind of dependence, Venezuela is unlikely to stop the shipments, though there may be some tit-for-tat retaliation. The United States and Venezuela need each other, no matter what the Presidente says and no matter how long he talks.

Here are our top stories from Washington…

US sanctions Venezuela’s oil giant for Iran trade
The United States slapped sanctions on Venezuela’s state oil giant PDVSA in its latest effort to disrupt Iran’s fuel supplies, a move that may provoke a fierce response from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. The sanctions would bar PDVSA from access to U.S. government contracts and import/export financing. But their impact is likely to be modest, as they do not affect the company’s sale of oil to the United States and other markets.

Ambassador Sean Penn? Dream on, President Chavez

VENEZUELA/

Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez regularly vents his fury against the United States, but there are a few Americans he’d like to talk to — such as Sean Penn, Oliver Stone, Noam Chomsky and even former President Bill Clinton.

Chavez named his U.S. dream team on Tuesday as possibilities to fill  the role of U.S. ambassador to Caracas after his government turned down the Obama administration’s nominee, Larry Palmer.

The State Department was not nearly as starry eyed.

“We appreciate President Chavez’ suggestions but the fact is we are not looking for another candidate to be the U.S. ambassador to Caracas,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said, adding that the administration still believed Palmer was the best man for one of the most difficult diplomatic jobs going.

Is Venezuela the new Cuba?

CUBA VENEZUELAIt takes a brave man to mention the word Cuba among certain company in Venezuela.

 For detractors of President Hugo Chavez, the island is synonymous with all they dislike in their country– the swing to socialism in the last decade; Chavez’s alliance with Fidel Castro; the stifling of private industry; and an increasingly authoritarian political system.  So it is impossible in Caracas opposition circles to have any sort of rational conversation about Cuba — everything is seen through the perspective of Chavez.  You like anything about Cuba, you think there’s any merit in anything on the island like its health or education services, then you’re ’comunista’.

For diehard “Chavistas”, it’s precisely the opposite. Cuba’s free health and school services, its record on sending volunteers around the world, and its thousands of workers in Venezuela, are to them a model of south-south cooperation. You think Fidel Castro failed to carry through the ideals of his revolution, turned the island into a dictatorship? You’re obviously a Yankee agent.

Chavez’s space plans have Foggy Bottom in stitches

Russian PM Vladimir Putin flew all the way to Venezuela for a quick 12-hour visit to boost oil and military ties with President Hugo Chavez, the loudest basher of U.S. “imperialism” in Washington’s backyard. 

VENEZUELA-RUSSIA/TIESBesides guns, tanks, jet fighters and missiles, Chavez wants a Russian hand in developing nuclear energy to cope with chronic electricity shortages in his oil-producing country, and technology to start a space industry.

“We are not going to build the atomic bomb, but we will develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes,” said the former paratrooper who has been in power for 11 years.

Is Chavez helping Iran build the bomb?

IRAN/

Veteran Manhattan DA Robert Morgenthau is on Hugo Chavez’s case.

Morgenthau warned last week at Washington’s Brookings Institution that Iran is using Venezuela’s financial system to avoid international sanctions so it can acquire materials to develop nuclear weapons and missiles.  He urged more scrutiny of the “emerging axis of Iran and Venezuela” in an op/ed article in the Wall Street Journal, in which he said a number of mysterious Iranian factories had sprung up in remote parts of Venezuela.

Chavez’s man in Washington, Venezuelan Ambassador Bernardo Alvarez, called the allegations “outrageous … unfounded and irresponsible” in a letter to the district attorney seen by Reuters.

True, leftist President Chavez has done little to endear himself to Americans. A fierce critic of the United States, his foreign policy rule of thumb is my enemy’s enemies are my friends. His last trip abroad included visits to Libya, Algeria, Syria, Iran, Belarus and Russia. He loudly announced plans to buy Russian tanks and anti-aircraft missiles.

U.S.: Chavez comments par for the course

He’s driven Exxon out of his country and suggested former U.S. President George W. Bush was the devil incarnate.

But Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez really teed off the State Department with his latest outrage — calling golf a bourgeois sport.

“My position, independent of what anyone else thinks, is that it’s a bourgeois sport,” the baseball-loving Chavez told his weekly television audience in July.

Honduran coup tests Obama in Latin America

SALVADOR/

Deposed Honduran president Manuel Zelaya got his strongest endorsement yet from President Barack Obama on Tuesday as the exiled leftist leader returned to Washington to meet Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
 
The United States has joined Latin America in unanimously condemning the military coup in the banana-producing country that ran Zelaya out of town in his pajamas ten days ago.
 
But Washington has been reluctant to slap sanctions on Honduras and cut off U.S. aid. Instead it is cautiously looking for a negotiated and peaceful resolution to a crisis that looks like a win-win situation for the United States’ main adversary in the hemisphere, Venezuela’s leftist leader Hugo Chavez.
 
Zelaya, a wealthy rancher who turned left in office and signed on to Chavez’s growing anti-U.S. coalition, is hardly the best poster boy for democracy. His moves to follow Chavez’s example and extend presidential term limits in Honduras sparked the political crisis in which the Honduran Supreme Court, with the backing of Congress, ordered the army to oust the president.
 
After years of U.S. neglect of Latin America during the Bush administration, Obama is trying to improve relations with the region and cannot afford to be on the wrong side of a crisis that many Latin Americans see as a flashback to a dark era of military dictatorships supported by the United States in the 1960s and 1970s.

HONDURAS/                                                                     

The Pentagon suspended military cooperation with Honduras last week, even though it maintains a U.S. base in the Central American country that served as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” in the 1980s when the United States was supplying the Contra war against Nicaragua’s Sandinistas.
 
Experts on Latin America warn that the close relationship with the Honduran military could lead the United States to do what it had done for decades during the Cold War: side with the elites.
 
“The battle between Zelaya and his opponents pits a reformist president supported by labor unions and social organizations against a mafia-like, drug-ridden, corrupt political elite who is accustomed to choosing not only the Supreme Court and the Congress, but also the president,” said Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington.
 
Dan Erikson, of the Inter-American Dialogue, believes Chavez is well-positioned to benefit from any outcome.
 
“If Zelaya is restored, then another Chavez ally remains in power. If the coup is not reversed, then Chavez has a new issue with which to rally anti-American sentiments in the region. The bottom line is that Chavez is engaged in trying to exploit the Honduran coup to maximum advantage,” Erikson said.
    
The hemisphere has still not figured out how to contain a new breed of power-grabbing populist leaders like Chavez who have risen through the ballot box, Erikson said.
 
But whatever their authoritarian tendencies might be, there is broad consensus today –unlike in decades past– that military coups against democratically elected governments are totally unacceptable.

First Draft: From No. 54,000 to No. 2 — after a handshake

SUMMIT-AMERICAS/The handshake that set Washington buzzing — that awkward grip-and-grin between President Barack Obama and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez at a weekend summit in Trinidad — seems to be great for book sales. Specifically, the tome Chavez passed to Obama, “Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of Pillage of a Continent” leaped from Number 54,000 on Amazon.com to Number 2, almost overnight.

The anti-colonialist book is in some strange company atop the online bestsellers list. Five of the others in the top 10 are editions in the popular romantic vampire “Twilight” series. There’s also “The 5000 Year Leap: A Miracle That Changed the World” at Number 7. The online description says it’s about how “the United States there has been a gradual drifting away from the Founding Fathers original success formula.”

Number 9 is “The Ultimate Depression Survival Guide: Protect Your Savings, Boost Your Income, and Grow Wealthy Even in the Worst of Times.” Number 8 is “The Shack,” billed as “a one of a kind invitation to journey to the very heart of God.”

Summit Saturday: One for the books

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago - Saturday’s Summit of the Americas was one for the books.
 
Just as President Barack Obama’s morning meeting with South American leaders was about to start, up popped Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
 
He ceremoniously presented the U.S. SUMMIT-AMERICAS/leader with a book along with a big handshake, their second or third of the summit, but then who’s counting.
 
The book was “Las Venas Abiertas de America Latina” (The Open Veins of Latin America) by Eduardo Galeano, a 1970s-era criticism of 500 years of European and U.S. economic exploitation of the Americas.
 
Asked later what he thought about the tome, Obama quipped: “I thought it was one of Chavez’s. I was going to give him one of mine.”
 
The U.S. president never produced a copy of his book — but one of the other leaders did.
 
As they gathered for the summit family picture, Saint Lucia Prime Minister Stephenson King produced a copy of “Dreams from My Father,” which Obama then autographed.
 
No book for Chavez, though he did exchange another big handshake with Obama, his third or fourth of the summit, but then who’s counting.
 
For more Reuters political news, click here.

Photo credit: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque (Chavez presents Obama with a book — and a handshake)

Obama, anti-U.S. leader Chavez shake hands at summit

PORT OF SPAIN - President BarackObama Friday greeted and shook hands with Venezuela’s
President Hugo Chavez during an impromptu meeting with the anti-U.S. leader at the Summit of the Americas.

Photographs released by the Venezuelan government showed Chavez, a fierce foe of former President SUMMIT/AMERICASGeorge W. Bush, smiling and clasping hands with Obama at the start of the summit of Latin American and Caribbean leaders in Trinidad.

“I greeted Bush with this hand eight years ago; I want to be your friend,” Chavez told Obama,  according to a Venezuelan presidential press office statement.