- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 11, 2002

Ironically enough, while some Arab nations threaten an oil boycott to punish the United States, we may be about to be hit with a real oil crisis from within our own hemisphere that is receiving little or no attention. Venezuela is on the verge of implosion, and very few in the U.S. media or government seem to be taking this threat to our national security seriously.

The government of quasi-dictator Hugo Chavez has never had the confidence of the elite in Venezuela, and is now rapidly losing favor with the poor and lower middle class which represent 80 to 90 percent of the population. Mr. Chavez's pro-communist, pro-socialist and pro-dictator government is starting to unravel at the seams, and the implications for the United States could not be more serious.

A quick look at what has transpired in Venezuela in just the last few days clearly outlines why this nation which on any given day is the second- or third-largest supplier of oil and gasoline to the United States warrants our immediate attention.

• In protest over Mr. Chavez's insistence on installing handpicked loyalists with little or no experience in the oil industry, the workers and management of the national oil company, PDVSA (Petroleos de Venezuela, S.A.) have gone on strike. The ripple effects of this strike have been immediate and frightening.

• Gas lines of four to six hours have sprung up all over this oil-rich nation as the population panics with the thought that the gasoline supply is about to dry up.

• Mr. Chavez has sent the National Guard to the refineries to control the workers and protect the installations. In addition, on April 6, Mr. Chavez sent the National Guard to the homes of 10 executives from PDVSA and basically forced them at gunpoint back to their jobs. At the exact same time, Mr. Chavez fired seven other top executives and announced the "retirement" of 12 more.

• In sympathy with the employees of PDVSA, the largest labor union in Venezuela, CTV (Confederacion de Trabajadores de Venezuela) has called for a national strike on April 9 that can be extended indefinitely depending upon the reaction of Mr. Chavez and his government.

• Mr. Chavez and his supporters are openly threatening Venezuelan journalists who dare to question his regime and its failing policies. These threats have become so serious that a group of Venezuelan journalists and their supporters just came to the United States to meet with members of Congress and the Organization of American States, begging for help and protection.

All this is taking place on the heels of massive unrest and uncertainty that is pushing Venezuela closer to revolution. Unemployment in country has reached record levels, thousands of companies (large and small) have gone out of business, a spiraling crime rate is making the elite virtual prisoners within their own homes, while a mass exodus from the nation of the young, highly educated Venezuelans is robbing the country of its best hope for the future.

As the United States and the rest of the world focus on the problems facing the Middle East, it should be noted that many within Venezuela and South America equate Hugo Chavez with Yasser Arafat and the Taliban. They do this in the strong belief that, like Mr. Arafat, Mr. Chavez exports terrorism. In his case, to neighboring Colombia and elsewhere as he seeks to foster his own twisted vision for the region.

Over the course of the last year, Mr. Chavez has become a huge thorn in the side of our State Department. He has cultivated personal friendships with the dictators who rule the rogue nations of Cuba, Iraq and Libya, while openly taunting the United States.

While some at the State Department have said off-the-record that they believe Mr. Chavez will be ousted by his own people, the reality is, as of now, he controls the spigot to much needed oil and gasoline for the U.S. market, and grows more irrational by the moment.

The fuse has been lit in Venezuela, all our attention is on the Middle East, and Mr. Chavez couldn't be happier.

Douglas MacKinnon is a former White House and Pentagon official, an author and novelist and has family and business interests in Venezuela.

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