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Last Updated: Friday, 1 September 2006, 13:15 GMT 14:15 UK
Chavez's whistle-stop world tour

In the course of the past six weeks, Venezuela's left-wing President Hugo Chavez has been on a dizzying round of travel, taking in a dozen countries.

His interest in international players like Russia and China may seem obvious, but Mr Chavez also found time to call in on minnows like Benin and Angola.

We asked Larry Birns, director of the Washington-based think-tank Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), to assess his itinerary.

What were Mr Chavez's aims - and did he achieve them?


Hugo Chavez's first stop was in Cordoba, where Venezuela made its formal debut in the South American trade pact Mercosur.

There he agreed with the other nations present to work together to boost trade, create jobs and cut poverty.

The summit was "a great success" for both Mr Chavez and his ally Fidel Castro, says Mr Birns.

Mr Chavez can count on all the Mercosur countries to support him in his bid for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council, thanks largely to his generous oil deals, Mr Birns says.


Hugo Chavez's decision to visit the ex-Soviet republic of Belarus surprised some observers because of the country's lack of obvious resources or political influence.

President Alexander Lukashenko is accused in the West of crushing human rights, leading the US and EU to impose travel bans and financial sanctions against him.

Venezuelan diplomats explain Mr Chavez's visit as being driven by his desire to have allies in every camp against what he sees as the heavy US presence in Latin America, reports Mr Birns.

While there Mr Chavez called for a strategic alliance between his country and Belarus to counter the "hegemonic interests of the capitalists".

He also signed agreements to co-operate on technology, energy and agriculture.


Hugo Chavez (r) inspects Kalashnikov assault rifles in Russia
The US has accused Venezuela of starting an arms race in the region
In Moscow, Mr Chavez defied US wishes in signing an arms deal with Russia said to be worth more than $3bn (1.6bn).

Under the terms of the agreement, Russia will supply fighter jets, helicopters, small arms and Kalashnikov assault rifles to Venezuela.

The US has made much of the arms purchase but it is not unduly large, says Mr Birns, given that the Venezuelan army numbers more than 70,000 and the national guard is currently poorly armed.

Mr Chavez thanked Moscow for freeing his country from a "blockade". Washington has banned US manufacturers from entering such deals with Caracas.


Mr Chavez's trip to Qatar may have been linked to his desire to win support from fellow Opec members over oil policy.

Venezuela has been at the forefront of calls for members of the oil cartel to reduce crude oil production quotas in order to keep prices high.

Revenue from the booming oil market is essential to Mr Chavez's domestic policies, aimed at improving infrastructure, education and healthcare in poor areas.

He may also be courting Qatar as a backer in Venezuela's bid for a non-permanent UN Security Council seat.


Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad pins a ceremonial award to Hugo Chavez's jacket in Tehran
Mr Chavez has embraced several nations widely criticised by the West
While in Tehran, Mr Chavez urged Iranian businesses to increase their investment in oil and gas production in Venezuela.

His show of solidarity with Iran - at a time when it is under pressure from the West to suspend its nuclear enrichment programme - is bound to have irked the US and others.

Iran is important to Mr Chavez because its influence over regional oil exports means it is one of the few countries among his allies with the power seriously to affect the Western economy, analyst Larry Birns says.


Mr Chavez's visit to Vietnam may have been prompted by the ideological affinity he feels with the communist country, Mr Birns says.

In Hanoi, the left-wing president spoke warmly of Vietnam's fight against the US in the 1960s and 1970s.

Mr Chavez also said he wanted to work more closely with Hanoi in forging an alliance against what he describes as US imperialism.

The two nations signed co-operation agreements on oil, gas, mining and agriculture.


Investment opportunities and the desire to win backing in his UN Security Council seat bid are thought to be behind Mr Chavez's visit to West Africa.

Mr Chavez promised $100m a year in petroleum products to help fight poverty in Mali.

In return, he said, he wants access to Mali's mineral products like bauxite, gold and fertiliser.

Closer ties would give Venezuela the chance to invest and lend technical expertise as Mali explores oil and gas reserves on its northern border.


Benin's importance to Mr Chavez may be linked to Venezuela's attempt to secure a non-permanent UN Security Council seat.

Like Mali, its untapped oil reserves also represent an investment opportunity for Venezuela's oil wealth, says Mr Birns.

The country was the last stop on Mr Chavez's official two-week world tour.


Cuban state media publicised Mr Chavez's hospital visit to the ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro with smiling pictures of the pair together and glowing reports of their conversation.

Hugo Chavez visits Fidel Castro in hospital in Cuba
Cuba's Fidel Castro shares Mr Chavez's vision for Latin America

The Venezuelan president has become one of Mr Castro's closest allies - and in exchange for oil at highly-preferential rates, thousands of Cuban doctors and teachers are involved in social projects in Venezuela.

The two presidents share a vision for the development of Latin America, says Mr Birns, boosting Mr Chavez's impression of himself as an "itinerant preacher spreading the word".

Mr Chavez called into Jamaica for a meeting with Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller on his way home from Cuba. The Caribbean nation is another which benefits from cheap rates on Venezuelan oil.


After a brief pause from travelling, Latin America's most-travelled head of state went back on the road for a six-day trip to China.

Hugo Chavez in Beijing
The energy deal with China was a high point of Mr Chavez's travels

He came away with a major energy deal, which should reduce Venezuela's reliance on US as a market for its oil, a joint deal to construct a new refinery in Venezuela and Chinese help to build a new fleet of oil tankers.

Mr Chavez hailed a "strategic alliance" between China and Venezuela that will meet Beijing's energy needs "today, tomorrow and always".

The $5bn investment promised by China outweighs all the money Mr Chavez spent on arms and in granting cut-price oil deals while on his world tour, Mr Birns says, making China the "high-water mark" of his travels.

Mr Chavez also declared he had secured Beijing's backing for his UN Security Council seat bid.


Trade ties and support for Venezuela at the UN were central to Mr Chavez's trip to Malaysia.

Speaking in Kuala Lumpur, he urged businesses to invest in Venezuela rather than Europe or the US and offered help in exploring potential Malaysian oil reserves.

He seems successfully to have secured Malaysia's backing for his campaign to secure a UN Security Council seat, says Mr Birns.


Hugo Chavez and Syria's President Bashar Assad in Damascus
Friendship with Syria ties into Mr Chavez's opposition to the US
The Venezuelan president stirred up controversy with a visit to Damascus in which he said he and Syria would strive to build a world free of US domination.

The trip was not particularly important in terms of trade, says Mr Birns, but fitted into Mr Chavez's desire to build an anti-American strategic alliance.

He will also hope to count on Syria's support in his quest for a UN Security Council seat.


Angola's sizeable oil reserves could make it a useful ally for Venezuela.

In the first visit by a Venezuelan head of state since Angola won independence in 1975, Mr Chavez pledged a new political, social and economic partnership.

The southern African nation may in return back Venezuela's attempt to win a UN Security Council seat.

Whatever their success, Mr Chavez's efforts abroad are unlikely to have much impact at home in Venezuela, adds Mr Birns.

Since first taking power in 1999, he has spent some 365 days away on foreign trips - but as long as oil revenue keeps bank-rolling domestic social projects, Mr Chavez's popularity looks set to continue.

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