- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 27, 2003

Venezuela struck a curiously magnanimous tone in recent days, promising to be a reliable wartime supplier of oil. "We are and will continue to be the most secure supplier of oil to the United States," said Venezuela's Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel last week, as the United States appeared on the brink of war with Iraq.

Surely, any pledge of goodwill from Venezuela towards the United States raises eyebrows these days, given the recent testy exchanges between the two countries. But, despite the tensions, Venezuela could hardly be expected to punish itself economically by halting oil exports to the United States.

Venezuela has traditionally provided about 20 percent of America's crude-oil imports, and it is the world's largest oil producer outside of the Middle East. In the wake of a two-month nationwide strike that began Dec. 4, Venezuela's oil production has been impaired. About 40 percent of the workers at Venezuela's state oil company were fired for striking. Before the strike, Venezuela was exporting about 2.5 million barrels a day, of which 1.5 million (60 percent) went to the United States. Estimates vary on what Venezuela is currently exporting.

Some private analysts believe Venezuela is exporting 1.8 million barrels a day and producing 2.4 million barrels a day. The government says it has passed its OPEC production quota of 2.8 million barrels a day, and can even push up production to 4 million barrels by April, if there's a supply emergency.

Regardless of the varying estimates, the company's ability to recover from the strike is impressive. And the United States does indeed need Venezuelan oil, particularly now. The Bush administration has successfully balanced its need for Venezuelan oil with its determination to hold Mr. Chavez accountable for his actions. The administration criticized Venezuela's arrests of strikers, for example, to which Mr. Chavez responded by telling the United States to mind its own business.

Now, with some Iraqi oil wells set on fire and the war possibly disrupting oil production for an unknown period of time, it may be tempting for the United States to go silent on its concerns about Mr. Chavez. But a continuation of the Bush administration's calibrated policy would bolster U.S. credibility and leadership. Also, the engagement of the United States and other countries in the Group of Friends initiative an effort to broker agreements between the government and the opposition keeps Mr. Chavez's policies within certain democratic bounds. The Group of Friends may also be moderating the opposition's tactics. A more restrained Mr. Chavez helps avert the kind of crisis that would disrupt Venezuela's oil production over the medium or long term.

The best guarantor of stability and oil production in Venezuela will be the international community's steady engagement. At this point, the whole world has a stake in Venezuela's future.

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