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Thursday, 14 September, 2000, 12:46 GMT 13:46 UK
Fuel crisis: The Venezuelan view
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez
Hugo Chavez: Hoping for high oil prices
By BBC regional analyst Nick Caistor

One man in particular hopes to gain from the recent increases in oil prices and the return to centre stage of the Organisation of Oil Exporting Countries (Opec). He is Hugo Chavez Frias, recently confirmed as president of Venezuela.

This South American country was one of Opecīs founder members in the 1960s.

It is now the worldīs third largest oil exporter and the United Statesī main foreign supplier.

But it is only since Mr Chavez came to power in 1998 that Venezuela has once again sought to use its oil wealth for political ends.

'Wasted earnings'

Oil accounts for almost half of Venezuelan government revenues. In the 1970s and 1980s, oil export earnings were often wasted.

Despite the advantage the oil gave this country of 23 million people, its governments ran up huge budget deficits and found themselves with increasing foreign debt problems.

Poverty in Venezuela is widespread
Poverty in Venezuela is widespread despite the oil revenues
In the late 1980s, Venezuela turned to the International Monetary Fund, and introduced austerity measures to try to balance the books.

These measures led to mass protests, and it was at this point that the then Colonel Chavez came on the scene.

He tried to capitalise on the popular movement by leading a coup. Although this failed, and he was jailed for two years, Mr Chavez was launched on his political career.

New republic

The traditional political parties of Venezuela underestimated the threat he posed. In February 1998, Mr Chavez swept to power as president, promising to found a new republic, put an end to corruption, and abolish poverty.

He started by dismissing Congress and setting up a constituent assembly to formulate a new national constitution. This was approved by national referendum in December 1999.

To demonstrate his democratic credentials, Mr Chavez then stood again as presidential candidate in fresh elections.

Opec meeting
Chavez sees Opec as a platform for his ambitions to be an international statesman
Once again, despite an embarrassing postponement of the vote until July, Mr Chavez was elected with a convincing majority.

According to the new constitution, he could be in power for the next decade. Now he has to start to make good on his promises.

He needs a high international price for oil to guarantee the funds to carry out all the infrastructure work - on new roads, hospitals, and schools - he has committed himself to.

International statesman

Mr Chavez also wants Opec to be an effective cartel, which could offer him the possibility of playing a role as an international statesman.

He would use this platform to argue that neo-liberal free market policies have failed in regions such as Latin America, where the state does have a significant role to play in national development.

At the same time, he is keen to demonstrate to the US that he is not a wild nationalist who could cause them problems. He needs them to remain a satisfied customer for Venezuelan oil, and more US investment to help boost the Venezuelan economy.

'Peaceful revolution'

Mr Chavez's political opponents say that what he calls his "peaceful revolution" is no more than a series of populist measures designed to keep him in power.

They point out that to base growth on a single commodity is a dangerous strategy, and call into question the ability of the president and his followers to plan long-term.

Despite these criticisms, Mr Chavez looks to be firmly in control of Venezuela, and to be determined to do all he can to ensure the international price of oil stays high to help him achieve his domestic political goals.


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