But our President has basically told Chavez to take his cheaper oil and stick it up his pipeline. Before I explain why Bush has done so, let me explain why Chavez has the power to pull it off -- and the method in the seeming madness of his "take-my-oil-please!" deal.
Venezuela, Chavez told me, has more oil than Saudi Arabia. A nutty boast? Not by a long shot. In fact, his surprising claim comes from a most surprising source: the U.S. Department of Energy. In an internal report, the DOE estimates that Venezuela has five times the Saudis' reserves. However, most of Venezuela's mega-horde of crude is in the More...form of "extra-heavy" oil -- liquid asphalt -- which is ghastly expensive to pull up and refine. Oil has to sell above $30 a barrel to make the investment in extra-heavy oil worthwhile. A big dip in oil's price -- and, after all, oil cost only $18 a barrel six years ago -- would bankrupt heavy-oil investors. Hence Chavez's offer: Drop the price to $50 -- and keep it there. That would guarantee Venezuela's investment in heavy oil.
But the ascendance of Venezuela within OPEC necessarily means the decline of the power of the House of Saud. And the Bush family wouldn't like that one bit. It comes down to "petro-dollars." When George W. ferried then-Crown Prince (now King) Abdullah of Saudi Arabia around the Crawford ranch in a golf cart it wasn't because America needs Arabian oil. The Saudis will always sell us their petroleum. What Bush needs is Saudi petro-dollars. Saudi Arabia has, over the past three decades, kindly recycled the cash sucked from the wallets of American SUV owners and sent much of the loot right back to New York to buy U.S. Treasury bills and other U.S. assets.
The Gulf potentates understand that in return for lending the U.S. Treasury the cash to fund George Bush's $2 trillion rise in the nation's debt, they receive protection in return. They lend us petro-dollars, we lend them the 82nd Airborne.
Chavez would put an end to all that. He'll sell us oil relatively cheaply -- but intends to keep the petro-dollars in Latin America. Recently, Chavez withdrew $20 billion from the U.S. Federal Reserve and, at the same time, lent or committed a like sum to Argentina, Ecuador, and other Latin American nations.
Chavez, notes The Wall Street Journal, has become a "tropical IMF." And indeed, as the Venezuelan president told me, he wants to abolish the Washington-based International Monetary Fund, with its brutal free-market diktats, and replace it with an "International Humanitarian Fund," an IHF, or more accurately, an International Hugo Fund. In addition, Chavez wants OPEC to officially recognize Venezuela as the cartel's reserve leader, which neither the Saudis nor Bush will take kindly to.
Politically, Venezuela is torn in two. Chavez's "Bolivarian Revolution," a close replica of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal-a progressive income tax, public works, social security, cheap electricity -- makes him wildly popular with the poor. And most Venezuelans are poor. His critics, a four-centuries' old white elite, unused to sharing oil wealth, portray him as a Castro-hugging anti-Christ.
Chavez's government, which used to brush off these critics, has turned aggressive on them. I challenged Chavez several times over charges brought against Sumate, his main opposition group. The two founders of the nongovernmental organization, which led the recall campaign against Chavez, face eight years in prison for taking money from the Bush Administration and the International Republican [Party] Institute. No nation permits foreign funding of political campaigns, but the charges (no one is in jail) seem like a heavy hammer to use on the minor infractions of these pathetic gadflies.
Bush's reaction to Chavez has been a mix of hostility and provocation. Washington supported the coup attempt against Chavez in 2002, and Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld have repeatedly denounced him. The revised National Security Strategy of the United States of America, released in March, says, "In Venezuela, a demagogue awash in oil money is undermining democracy and seeking to destabilize the region."
So when the Reverend Pat Robertson, a Bush ally, told his faithful in August 2005 that Chavez has to go, it was not unreasonable to assume that he was articulating an Administration wish. "If he thinks we're trying to assassinate him," Robertson said, "I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it. It's a whole lot cheaper than starting a war . . . and I don't think any oil shipments will stop."
There are only two ways to defeat the rise of Chavez as the New Abdullah of the Americas. First, the unattractive option: Cut the price of oil below $30 a barrel. That would make Chavez's crude worthless. Or, option two: Kill him.
Q: Your opponents are saying that you are beginning a slow-motion dictatorship. Is that what we are seeing?
Hugo Chavez: They have been saying that for a long time. When they're short of ideas, any excuse will do as a vehicle for lies. That is totally false. I would like to invite the citizens of Great Britain and the citizens of the U.S. and the citizens of the world to come here and walk freely through the streets of Venezuela, to talk to anyone they want, to watch television, to read the papers. We are building a true democracy, with human rights for everyone, social rights, education, health care, pensions, social security, and jobs.
Q: Some of your opponents are being charged with the crime of taking money from George Bush. Will you send them to jail?
Chavez: It's not up to me to decide that. We have the institutions that do that. These people have admitted they have received money from the government of the United States. It's up to the prosecutors to decide what to do, but the truth is that we can't allow the U.S. to finance the destabilization of our country. What would happen if we financed somebody in the U.S. to destabilize the government of George Bush? They would go to prison, certainly.