A number of harsh critics of Hugo Chávez are claiming that, in the course of a planned upcoming tour of Russia at the end of this month, the Venezuelan President may decide to also visit North Korea. A number of media sources, some of which are connected to South Korea’s right-wing pundit Reverend Moon, suggest that the purpose of the trip is to initiate ‘oil-for-missile’ talks with American arch-nemesis Kim Jong Il. While the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington, D.C., has declined to release an official comment about either the trip in general or its specific purpose, Foreign Minister Alí Rodríguez Araque suggested it is indeed imminent when he defended the trip against U.S. criticism. The Associated Press reports that Rodríguez also stated that Pyongyang recent missile tests have not affected Chávez’s plans to visit the country. The wire story goes on to report that Mari Pili Hernandez, Venezuela’s deputy foreign minister for North America, has defended North Korea’s right to test missiles.
But if the Pyongyang phase of the trip is carried out and the oil-for-missile deal is worked out, Chávez could be playing with fire. By choosing to support Kim’s internationally condemned actions, he is handing ammunition to his many ill-intentioned Washington critics. Further, if the Reverend Moon allegations turn out to be true, ‘oil-for-missile’ talks between two of Washington’s premier foes will only add fuel to the intense fire of Washington’s already blazing anti-Caracas confrontation. If the trip comes off at this time, Chávez will be visiting a country that has been roundly condemned by a UN Security Council resolution in which member nations voted 15-0 that North Korea must cease its missile testing. Ironically, this comes at a time when Chávez is vying for a seat on that very body. Rather than working to give legitimacy to his Security Council aspirations in a very close race against U.S.-backed Guatemala, Chávez could be serving up a homerun pitch to a losing team in the final innings of what should have been a winning game, and just before his own re-election race next December.
Battle for UN Seat
Chávez’s prospective side-trip to North Korea, perhaps as part of his July 25 to 27 trip to Russia, has already drawn unkind mutterings from those who don’t think well of him for his ‘threats to world peace,’ as recently charged in the Wall Street Journal. In a high wager diplomatic game, the prize of which is the Latin American seat which Argentina is about to vacate after a two-year-tenure, one might wonder whether it is wise to deal with a man who recently has ordered missiles to be launched after the world begged him to desist.” Is courting such a dubious figure a fit strategy that will land Chávez the coveted UN seat?
A Questionable Agenda
The purported mission of Chávez’s rendezvous in Pyongyang, according to the conservative United Press International Intelligence Analysis, World Tribune and South Korean Times, is something more than a pot-boiler trip professedly to establish scientific and technological cooperation between Venezuela and North Korea. But the anti-Chávez World Tribune suggests that the two leaders want to discuss crafting a “strategic alliance” opposed to Washington’s expansionist policies. The paper also intimates that Chávez, leader of the fifth-largest oil exporter in the world, will offer to trade his black gold to Pyongyang for missiles and other weapons, as part of his weapons replenishment program. A number of other publications have picked up the story of the missile deal that could turn out to be entirely apocryphal.
Kim desperately seeks outside oil to cope with his country’s profound energy crisis, which is helped along by U.S. embargos. For its part, Caracas is stocking up on its weapons inventory after Washington cut off arm dealings with Chávez. The Bolivarian leader and mainstay of South America’s pink tide is looking to modernize his armed forces and equip his civilian militia. However, these negotiations will not take place in a vacuum. For example, statements like the one made by Rodríguez, as cited in the Los Angeles Times, that Caracas will use its sought after position on the Security Council “to support peace in the world and refuse all kinds of attacks on peaceful countries,” would hold little weight if Caracas at the same time decides to dicker with Pyongyang on the matter of missiles and other incendiary issues.
North Korea does not have the cleanest record of acting as a rational member of the international community. If Rodríguez truly wants to prove that his nation could represent “a voice to advocate peace and respect for sovereignty” on the Security Council, warmly dealing with a particularly unsavory dictator, who is fully capable of bringing on a nuclear winter, is a perplexing factor in any effort to establish thriving relationships with the rest of the hemisphere.
The fact that the U.S. and North Korea are locked in a tense conflict may be enough of an incentive to spur the mischievous Chávez to broaden and deepen his dialogue with Kim. However, while Pyongyang and Caracas may share a common foe, Venezuela’s potential arms dealings with North Korea, if true, demonstrably will do more damage to Chávez’s international reputation than any good that could come from joint commiseration over Washington’s war mongering. (Both Kim and Chávez have claimed that their weapons derby is jockeyed by the need to defend their countries against some future Bush-lead offensive.)
Mission Impossible: Talks Could Damn Bolivarian Dream
Would it be too much to ask of Chávez, at this time, not to arm his swashbuckling and feral enemy, the U.S., with the weapons of his own destruction, by entering into an almost unnatural association with a notorious bottom feeder like Kim. If the South American leader is interested in modernizing his military, why not continue ongoing deals with Russia, or better yet, Spain? He would be ill-advised to be side-tracked from his real mission of helping to stage political science’s ultimate experiment: that of fusing a democratic-socialist economy with a progressive political system anchored by constitutional values, and see if that mix works. Only Chávez has the necessary purse and vision to architect this experiment, and it would be tragic if he doesn’t muster the discipline to single-mindedly see the experiment through.
Venezuela has already signed a contract with Russia for twenty-four top-of-the-line fighter jets (DefenseNews.com) and has purchased thirty thousand automatic rifles, with thousands more to come, as well as 15 helicopters from Moscow last year (Reuters). These arms procurements have caused growing apprehensions in Washington, where, earlier this year, Caracas accused U.S. officials of refusing to supply some replacement parts for a fleet of aging U.S.-manufactured F-16 fighter jets (The Standard). The Bush administration recently halted the sale of military equipment to Venezuela after lamely arguing that Caracas had failed to sufficiently collaborate in its opera bouffe War on Terror. Washington also has chastised Chávez, without citing any corroborative evidence worth the name, for “destabilizing” neighboring democratic governments—a phrase more armed with propaganda than insight.
While modernizing one’s army could hardly be automatically counted as threatening one’s neighbors, Washington’s complaints could gain validity should Chávez decide to negotiate an oil for arms deal with North Korea instead of obtaining them from a less compromised source, or at least delay a final decision on the matter. With the international community holding its breath for what is being perceived as a growing North Korean threat, the Venezuelan President’s sojourn, if it ends up involving the transfer of stock from Kim’s missile inventory, could be perhaps wrongfully seen by potential Caracas-backers in the Security Council, as a disturbing challenge to regional peace and security.
Washington so far has remained strangely quiet on Chávez’s arcane travel plans, but an uproar is sure to be sounded once the itinerary is made final and it includes a stopover in Pyongyang that could result in the controversial arms deal. At that point, one can be certain that the Chávez mission to Pyongyang will be added to the Bush administration’s warehouse of anti-Chávez initiatives for justification of his ill-will towards the Venezuelan leader.
Although Caracas may be disappointed that President Bush doesn’t make it a point to regularly clear his calendar with President Chávez before he flies off to meet with his allies to build up his case against North Korea or Iran, the State Department may bemoan Chávez for not sharing his itinerary with Washington. For now, the State Department’s press secretary is left lamenting that he was not aware of the Chávez-Kim meeting. He added, “Look, you know, I don’t know. He is free to travel wherever he wants, but his actions will either further isolate him in terms of his points of view or they will not, and that choice is going to be up to him.”
Washington Will Enter the Rink
But don’t expect Washington to remain so strangely quiet for long. In its virulent campaign against Venezuela, in favor of Guatemala — one of Latin America’s most brutal and drug-sodden nations — Washington can be counted on to exploit any apparent Venezuelan weakness in its determination to attenuate Caracas’ ability to play a constructive role in achieving global security.
In the approaching battle for the Latin American vote on the UN Security Council, Chávez would be wise not to give his foes in Washington and within Venezuela any easy pretext to cast him as a serious threat to a prudent UN missile accord with North Korea. To truly bring change to the world’s repressed voices, Caracas ought to create a back-fire to Washington’s current anti-Chávez propaganda blitz by being more sensitive to the public relations implications of associations with North Korea. Chávez should know when it is wise not to make that provocative speech, consider trading oil for missiles, or, for that matter, embark on what could turn out to be a misconceived trip, in order to better address what should be the main issue on the Chávez agenda: the creation of a good society in Venezuela and elsewhere.
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“Venezuela’s Chavez Planning Arms-for-Oil Trip to N. Korea,” World Tribune.com. 5 July
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