CARACAS - After returning from a whirlwind tour abroad and as he prepares for
his next one, Venezuelan President Hugo ChĂˇvez has kept busy on the diplomatic
front, visiting convalescent Cuban leader Fidel Castro on his 80th birthday,
replacing his foreign minister, and receiving Colombia's new foreign minister.
The Venezuelan government has expanded its diplomatic agenda, striking oil
and gas deals with its neighbors in South America as well as distant developing
nations like Mali, Indonesia, and Vietnam, while it disputes with Guatemala
a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.
But at the same time it has taken a harder-line stance, with its $5 billion
defense deals with Russia and Spain and its continued political confrontation
with Washington, and by pushing relations with Israel to the verge of complete
rupture and placing the Foreign Ministry in the hands of NicolĂˇs Maduro,
a hardened ChĂˇvez supporter.
Maduro, 43, a former bus driver and trade unionist and a leader of ChĂˇvez's
governing Fifth Republic Movement party, served as speaker of parliament since
The Venezuelan Congress, whose 167 members are all government supporters since
the badly weakened and fractured opposition boycotted the October 2005 legislative
elections, has elected Maduro's wife Cilia Flores to replace him as speaker
â€“ a post over which ChĂˇvez has the last word, according to both political
analysts and members of parliament.
On his return early this month from a tour of Argentina, Belarus, Brazil, Iran,
Mali, Russia, and Vietnam, which also included brief stopovers in Benin, Portugal,
and Qatar, ChĂˇvez appointed Maduro as foreign minister, replacing AlĂ
RodrĂguez, a former president of the Venezuelan oil giant PDVSA and former
secretary-general of OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries), who
has suffered health problems since late last year.
"NicolĂˇs has great potential, as he has demonstrated, and has acquired
extensive experience," RodrĂguez said when he handed the post over
to Maduro, who frequently traveled abroad as speaker of parliament.
Maduro, who has not yet provided an overview of his plans as foreign minister,
traveled with ChĂˇvez to Havana Sunday to visit Castro as he was recovering
from intestinal surgery. They then made a stopover in Jamaica to expand an oil
cooperation agreement.. And on Tuesday, they met with Colombia's new foreign
minister, MarĂa Consuelo AraĂşjo.
Former Venezuelan deputy foreign minister and ambassador to the United Nations
Milos Alcalay told IPS that "Maduro's appointment further politicizes Venezuela's
diplomacy, which no longer responds to the state but to a party, and which is
now controlled by someone who does not present independent proposals but says
'yes, my commander' to whatever the president orders."
The president of the Colegio de Internacionalistas de Venezuela (an association
of experts in international relations), Juan Contreras, said the designation
of Maduro "exacerbates the sense of frustration among Foreign Ministry
career officials because of the disdain for professionalism shown by the selection
of officials without the necessary training and experience."
RodrĂguez, however, pointed out that the Venezuelan constitution and
laws have consistently granted the president direct control over foreign relations.
Under that premise, ChĂˇvez has personally begun to campaign for a seat
for Venezuela on the UN Security Council for the 2007-2008 period. He has achieved
the support of the rest of the full members of the Mercosur trade bloc (Argentina,
Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay) â€“ which Venezuela joined this year â€“
the Caribbean Community (Caricom), and the countries he visited on his late
July-early August tour.
The president also plans to visit China, Malaysia, and Angola next week.
In the meantime, his administration has won sympathy in the Arab and Muslim
world due to its loud condemnation of Israel's military offensive against Lebanon.
ChĂˇvez, who recalled Venezuela's charges d'affaires from Israel, said
he had "no interest in maintaining diplomatic relations, or offices, or
businesses, or anything else with a state like Israel."
In virtually every public appearance he makes, ChĂˇvez reiterates that
his government's broader struggle is against Washington's foreign policy, and
predicts that U.S. imperialism will disappear in the next few decades.
Meanwhile, Caracas has been forging "strategic alliances" with countries
like Russia, China, Iran, and the rest of the members of OPEC.
Washington, for its part, maintains a constant barrage of criticism against
the ChĂˇvez administration, lashing out at everything from its purchases
of weapons from Russia to the supposed "lack of democracy" in Venezuela,
while backing Guatemala in its bid for a UN Security Council seat.
When he presented Maduro as his new foreign minister, ChĂˇvez said "I
have never deceived anyone, and I have no cards up my sleeve, and I have dared
to tell the country and the world over the past two years that we must follow
the path of socialism."
He also underscored the importance of combining oil and diplomacy, because
"in the case of Venezuela, our oil and energy strategy cannot be separated
To illustrate, he mentioned his invitation to Russia to participate in the
"great gas pipeline of the south," which is to run from gas fields
in Venezuela's Caribbean coastal region to the RĂo de la Plata estuary
between Argentina and Uruguay, supplying those two countries as well as Brazil
and Paraguay along the way.
ChĂˇvez has been promoting and signing agreements in practically every
country he visits, creating trade and technology transfer opportunities and
joint ventures in areas like agriculture, mining, oil, gas, and petrochemicals.
Some of his critics in the region, like Peruvian President Alan GarcĂa
and President Roberto BolaĂ±os in Nicaragua, have accused ChĂˇvez
of using Venezuela's booming oil profits to impose his political agenda.
But while ChĂˇvez pulled Venezuela out of the Andean Community trade
bloc â€“ now made up of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru â€“ this
year after BogotĂˇ and Lima negotiated free trade agreements with the
United States, Caracas has not stopped doing business with those two countries.
During this week's visit by Colombian Foreign Minister AraĂşjo â€“
who said Venezuela is one of her government's priorities â€“ ChĂˇvez
renewed his commitment to building a natural gas pipeline to run between the
two countries, and to bolstering bilateral trade, which stood at $3.26 billion
in 2005 and could climb to $5 billion a year.
With his intense diplomatic activity, ChĂˇvez has been paying little
attention to domestic questions in Venezuela, where he looks set for reelection
on Dec. 3.
The polls indicate that he will take at least 55 percent of the vote in the
presidential elections in which no opposition candidate appears to pose a real
Although the election campaign officially began on Aug. 4, neither the president
nor his rivals have held any rallies, and no campaign posters or media spots
are even to be seen yet.
(Inter Press Service)