- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 26, 2008

SANTA CRUZ, El Salvador — Officials in the United States and El Salvador fear that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez plans to use his nation’s oil wealth to back the presidential candidate from the Marxist FMLN, which waged an armed insurgency during the 1980s.

The concern stems from recent gains by the Sandinista front in Nicaragua, where party leader Daniel Ortega won the presidency in 2006 after 16 years in the opposition.

Local press reports claim the widespread availability of discounted oil supplied by Mr. Chavez’s government prior to Nicaragua’s election contributed to Mr. Ortega’s win.

U.S. officials fear Mr. Chavez will do the same in El Salvador.

“We foresee that Chavez will provide generous financing to the campaign of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front [FMLN] in El Salvador in an attempt to secure the presidential elections of 2009,” said a report presented to Congress this month by National Intelligence Director Michael McConnell.

The assessment submitted by Mr. McConnell, who oversees and coordinates the work of 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, including the CIA and the FBI, warned that Mr. Chavez seeks to “expand the activities of Venezuela in Central America,” where he already counts Mr. Ortega as an “unconditional ally.”

Speaking on his weekly TV show, “Hello President,” Mr. Chavez called the reports a “lie” and insisted that the FMLN “doesn’t need” his help.

Since his election in 1998, Mr. Chavez has used his oil wealth throughout Latin America to form alliances with fellow leftist and anti-American leaders such as Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Bolivia’s Evo Morales.

Asdrubal Chavez, a first cousin of Mr. Chavez, directs the Caribbean operations of Venezuela’s state-owned oil monopoly, known by the Spanish acronym, PDVSA.

According to press reports, Asdrubal Chavez personally supervised deliveries of discounted oil to individual city governments in Nicaragua prior to the voting.

A series of articles in the leading Salvadoran newspaper Prensa Grafica claim that Asdrubal Chavez has been traveling to El Salvador to set up a network of municipal companies to distribute and store crude oil and refined products such as gasoline.

The government of El Salvador is controlled by the right-wing National Republican Alliance party of President Antonio Saca.

But the FMLN gained several key municipalities in local elections last year, including the capital, San Salvador.

FMLN officials have confirmed meetings with Mr. Chavez to negotiate financial support for local projects.

“We have met on several occasions with Mr. Asdrubal Chavez,” said Carlos Ruiz, the FMLN mayor of Soyapango and president of the El Salvador Energy Enterprise, Enapsa, which is 60 percent owned by PDVSA.

The FMLN’s coordinator for municipal affairs, Orestes Ortez, said that Mr. Chavez talked about turning El Salvador into the “center of business operations for the Venezuelan project in the region.”

Both El Salvador and Nicaragua dominated U.S. policy toward Central America in the 1980s. Washington funded Contra rebels trying to overthrow Nicaragua’s Sandinista government, and it also backed successive El Salvadoran governments in a war against the FMLN.

FMLN spokesman Sigfrido Reyes says that El Salvador’s president, Mr. Saca, is turning Mr. Chavez into a campaign issue in order to “deflect the political discussion from El Salvador’s real problems.”

Mr. Saca has said that the joint municipal ventures are “entirely legal,” but warned that “if these companies are serving to hide money which goes directly to the political party, it would be very serious.”

“We would be facing a clear intervention in the internal affairs of my country, and it is something that we are going investigate.”

Mr. Saca, who was in Washington attending a national prayer meeting with President Bush this month, has been the only Latin American leader to openly support the war in Iraq by contributing 250 Salvadoran troops to U.S.-led coalition forces.

He is constitutionally prohibited from seeking another term.

In October, the FMLN recommended that journalist, commentator and talk-show host Mauricio Funes head the party’s ticket.

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