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Last Updated: Monday, 24 July 2006, 01:13 GMT 02:13 UK
Chavez tour piques US interest
By Greg Morsbach
BBC News, Caracas

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
The US's bogeymen are often Venezuela's friends
President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela is currently on a world tour that is likely to widen the rift with the United States - but may win him further support for a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

He arrived in Belarus on Sunday, from where he will continue to Russia, Qatar, Iran, Vietnam and Mali.

Mr Chavez is due to return to Venezuela on 2 August after nearly two weeks on the road.

What will interest diplomats at the US state department most is President Chavez's visits to Moscow and Tehran.

He is hoping to sign an arms deal with President Vladimir Putin worth around $1bn (542m), including 24 Sukhoi Su-30 fighter bomber aircraft and 30 Russian helicopters.

Venezuela is also looking for an agreement from Moscow that would give it a licence to manufacture Russian Kalashnikov assault rifles and ammunition at home.

Iranian welcome

Mr Chavez's firm opposition to UN action against Iran's nuclear programme has won him favour in Tehran.

The two countries enjoy warm relations, operating joint cement and tractor factories.

Venezuelan soldiers march with new rifles from Russia
Venezuela's army already uses Russian weapons

However, what the US fears is that this friendly relationship could be extended into the realm of nuclear technology.

Venezuela has uranium deposits but there is no hard evidence to suggest that it has started mining them, nor does it have the capacity to enrich the material, in contrast to Argentina and Brazil.

In an interview with the BBC, Venezuela's Foreign Minister Ali Rodriguez said:

"Our country wishes to see all nuclear weapons scrapped once and for all. They belong to the era of the Cold War. We are however not opposed to countries developing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes."

Chavez 'courting outsiders'

At a first glance the list of countries chosen for this tour looks like an eclectic mix of destinations.

Chavez is looking for... a common ideological front against the US
Larry Birns
Council on Hemispheric Affairs
A closer look reveals some of the thinking guiding Venezuela's diplomacy.

"You have a variety of motives for this tour," said Larry Birns, director of the Washington-based think tank, Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA).

"Chavez is mainly courting countries considered by the Bush administration to be outsiders. He's looking for oil deals, votes to support Venezuela's bid for a seat on the UN Security Council, and to create a common ideological front against the US."

UN ambitions

Venezuela's foreign ministry is optimistic it will get the 128 votes it needs to gain a UN Security Council seat.

Diplomats are banking on votes from member states of southern hemisphere organisations like Mercosur, Caricom, the African Union and Arab League.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez
Of his eight years in office, Mr Chavez has spent a year travelling

But there is growing impatience at home in Venezuela with President Chavez's long absences, even among hardened "Chavistas" - the name given to Mr Chavez's supporters.

"No other leader in South America has clocked up as many air miles as Hugo Chavez," said Milos Alcalay, a former career diplomat and Venezuelan ambassador to the UN.

Since Mr Chavez first took office in 1999, he has spent close to 365 days travelling from one foreign destination to the next.

Nevertheless, President Chavez is confident of sweeping to victory in December's presidential elections and has no second thoughts about spending weeks at a time outside the country.

Pyongyang postponed

Mr Chavez originally intended to visit North Korea as part of his global whistle-stop tour but Venezuela's National Assembly did not ratify a stop off in Pyongyang on this occasion.

"I'm relieved he's not going to North Korea this time," a Venezuelan official said. "The timing would have been difficult given that North Korea is in the spotlight of the international community."

To some analysts it appears that Mr Chavez listened to his close advisers to water down his original travel plans and make them less controversial.

However, Mr Chavez is widely seen as an unpredictable figure.

He may still pull a few surprises out of his hat during his world tour: one such surprise could be a visit to the Syrian capital Damascus after the Syrians invited Mr Chavez earlier this year.

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