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Chavez Threat Runs Deeper Than Oil

STEVEN INSKEEP, Host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

President Bush and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez have a history of what you might call a noxious relationship. You may recall that Chavez called President Bush, quote, "the devil" at the U.N. general assembly a couple of years ago. Despite the hate speak, the two leaders have had to put up with each other. The U.S. needs Venezuela's oil and Venezuela needs the U.S. to buy it.

But on Sunday, Chavez threatened, yet again, to turn off the tap altogether as NPR's Juan Forero reports.

JUAN FORERO: President Chavez is a rousing populist who never tires in directing his ire at the Bush administration. And he never tires of warning that should the United States ever think of invading his country, he'd shut off oil exports.

Now Chavez says he'll stop the flow of oil if ExxonMobil advances in a lawsuit against his country. The Texas company's legal strategy has already delivered a big blow against Venezuela, the freezing of assets belonging to the state oil company. That angered Chavez.

INSKEEP: (Through translator) If you end up freezing and it harms us, we are going to harm you. Do you know how? We aren't going to send oil to the United States. Take note, Mr. Bush, Mr. Danger.

FORERO: Many of Chavez's threats, often made in personal attacks against George Bush, attract little attention in Washington. But his latest is a first, warning punitive damage against the United States if ExxonMobil's suit succeeds.

The company is taking Venezuela to court for having nationalized its oil operations last year. Courts in Europe recently ordered assets be frozen while the case is under review.

Larry Goldstein is president of the Petroleum Industry Research Foundation, an energy industry supported analysis group in New York. He says Venezuela is so dependent on the U.S. for its oil sales that it could never follow through on Chavez's threat.

MONTAGNE: The leader of the country says out front that he will not obey international and judicial law. He's going to hurt himself in the long run. My sense is those statements are directed more for internal consumption than external consumption.

FORERO: Chavez's comments reflect a larger issue - the dismal relations between Washington and Caracas and what to do about them. They've been particularly bad since the Bush administration expressed support for a failed coup against Chavez in 2002.

Having Bush as a foil has been advantageous to Chavez. Bush is not popular in Latin America. But Michael Shifter, who tracks Venezuela for the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington, says the problems go beyond Bush. The United States remains worried about Chavez's ever closer alliance with Iran, for instance. And the friendly relationship he's recently been building with guerrillas in Columbia.

MONTAGNE: I think it's unrealistic to think that somehow the problems are going to disappear. I think perhaps the tone may change and there may be some changes on the margins, but I think that the problems and the disagreements run deeper than just the personality of George W. Bush.

FORERO: The latest outburst by Chavez is serious. It's helped contribute to a spike in oil futures. The Bush administration has said little. Larry Birns, who directs the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, said this is in line with Washington's current policy.

MONTAGNE: It's not that the United States wishes Chaves well - far from it - but I think that this is right now a one-man battle in which the United States has chosen at this particular point not to engage.

FORERO: It's a strategy that the lame duck Bush administration can perhaps afford. But given that Venezuela is the fourth largest oil exporter to the United States, it could be a risky strategy for Bush's successor.

Juan Forero, NPR News, Bogota, Columbia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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