- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 17, 2000

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez defied the United States by becoming the first head of state to visit Iraq since the 1991 Gulf War. The U.S. business community was particularly nonplussed by the meeting, since Venezuela supplies the United States with most of the oil it imports. Venezuela's anti-gringo contingent, on the other hand, cheered Mr. Chavez's machismo.

More than likely, the visit was fashioned for the domestic consumption of this very group. Mr. Chavez's friendship with Cuban, Libyan and Chinese dictators has already proved popular in Venezuela. Mr. Chavez has maintained that he dropped in on Saddam Hussein to discuss how to expand the role of Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the international oil cartel which Venezuela is a part of. But since Iraq was placed under U.N. sanctions, it hasn't operated under OPEC's quota system. Although Mr. Chavez may have inquired about Iraq's production plans, the rendezvous probably gave Venezuela little more than an opportunity for tough talk.

Iraq, in turn, has seized on Mr. Chavez's visit to spit in the eye of America. "Every now and then, the rulers of America receive slaps from representatives of other countries, but despite this, these rulers go further with their internationally rejected behavior," said an Iraqi Foreign Ministry spokesman, seemingly labeling Venezuela a global pariah.

Mr. Chavez's visit with Saddam was part of a larger tour of OPEC countries. Before visiting Iraq on Aug. 10, Mr. Chavez traveled to Kuwait, Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to drum up support for an OPEC summit in Venezuela next month. The meeting is important for Venezuela, since the country is especially vulnerable to any drop in oil prices.

Mr. Chavez has managed to scare away most foreign investors with incendiary rhetoric and misguided policies. He is therefore keen to turn Venezuelans' attention outwards. Mr. Chavez's visit to Iraq achieved just that, in the short term.

Last year, the Venezuelan economy contracted an alarming 7 percent, even as oil prices surged. The contraction is all the more painful in a country where over half of the population already lives in poverty. Unemployment is currently between 15 to 20 percent. Crime is also rampant, with murders up 70 percent this year.

Mr. Chavez's tte—tte with a detestable tyrant will distract Venezuelans for only so long. Soon his people will demand more than unkept promises and anti-imperialist bravado. They will want their president to address more substantive concerns, such as safer streets and job-creating, economic growth.

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