Please explain the political unrest in Venezuela and how it matters to the U.S.?

As I'm writing, a general strike by Venezuela's oil industry is threatening to devolve into political violence and even civil war. Nobody's all that sure what it's about on account of all them people down there speak an obscure and difficult-to-decipher Romance dialect commonly known as "Spanish." I'll try to piece it together for you as best I can though.

Venezuela is one of the world's largest oil producers. It provides 12 percent of the United States' imported oil. Canada (18 percent), Saudi Arabia and Mexico (13 percent each) provide more, but frankly theirs doesn't taste nearly as good.

Despite the country's oil wealth, the overwhelming majority of Venezuelans live in poverty. For decades, the only obvious beneficiaries of Venezuela's oil have been its wealthy elite.

The failed leadership of democratically elected, but dictatorially leaning, nutjob President Hugo Chavez sparked the current unrest. He won office in 1998 by promising to distribute wealth more fairly, and to clean up Venezuela's political corruption with an iron fist — literally (his campaign logo was the image of a black, iron fist).

Chavez kept his promise to take on his country's moneyed elite and as a result has firmly united them against him. At the same time, his policies have failed to do anything to help average Venezuelans. The economy is sucking wind and the standard of living has dropped steeply.

Chavez also has alienated Venezuela's true reformist democrats because he rammed through constitutional reforms that smack of a guy hell bent on ruling as a dictator rather than as president of a democracy. Chavez fashions himself a revolutionary leader in the mold of South American independence leader Simon Bolivar, so much so that he went ahead and renamed the country the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

So intense is the cult of Bolivar in Venezuela that nearly every town in the country has a central square with a Bolivar statue. While vacationing in Venezuela in 1998, this columnist was forbidden by an armed military/police officer from cutting across such a square because to do so while wearing shorts would have been disrespectful to the Bolivar statue. By aligning himself with Bolivar, Chavez is, in effect, portraying anyone opposed to him as the unpatriotic enemy of Venezuela's George Washington.

Then there's the whole nutjob thing. Chavez is openly pals with Saddam Hussein and '80s bogeyman-extraordinaire Libya's Muammar Gaddafi. He wrote tender letters to the late terrorist Carlos The Jackal while Mr. The Jackal was in a French prison. I characterize that as nutty because such actions only show his enemies he's not someone western democracies can trust or even deal with. Not a real smart strategy.

That's where the U.S. comes in. We wouldn't have liked him much to begin with because, frankly, our oil industry was perfectly happy with Venezuela the way it was. Add to that his open association with our enemies, and our government downright hates Chavez.

So when a coup toppled Chavez briefly in April, the Bush administration, populated with Ford and Reagan era officials who historically have no affinity for Latin American democracy, immediately recognized the coup leaders as the new government despite the fact they just overthrew a legitimately elected leader. Though Chavez regained power and arrested the plotters, he's made no progress at stemming his opposition or solving the economic problems.

Meanwhile, our support for the coup demonstrated to the rest of the world that we only support democracy if we like who's elected and that we'll toss our democratic principles aside if it means cheaper oil. And we wonder why other countries are cynical about our impending invasion of Iraq.


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