Chávez usa el petróleo para extender su influencia en la región

VENEZUELA

Chávez uses nation's oil to extend regional clout
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez embarked on a mission to strengthen South American ties through petroleum connections.

BY RICHARD LAPPER

Financial Times

SAO PAULO - Cheap oil, contracts for a state-owned shipbuilding yard and concessionary credits for workers' co-operatives were all on the agenda on Wednesday as Hugo Chávez, Venezuela's president, began a lightning two-day trip to a region he has called ``the axis of the south.''
 
In a visit designed to consolidate his country's growing influence in the continent, Venezuela's radical nationalist leader touched down in Uruguay on Wednesday and was due to fly on to Buenos Aires before meeting Brazil's President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva for dinner later on Thursday.
 
With oil prices topping $60 a barrel and Venezuela's international reserves standing at more than $30 billion, Chávez has ample funds available to help friendly left wing and center-left governments. His oil diplomacy has been helped by recent legislation that has allowed him to use $6 billion from his country's central bank reserves for development purposes.
 
It has triggered increasing concern in Washington, because of the Venezuelan leader's fiery anti-American rhetoric, friendship with countries such as Cuba and Iran and recent arms purchases. Earlier this week Venezuela canceled drug war co-operation with the United States.
 
This week's trip, which will also see Chávez step up efforts to gain full membership of the Mercosur customs union, follows the agreement in June to offer cheap oil to 14 Caribbean countries and the purchase in March of $500 million of Argentine bonds. Chávez is also expected to buy up to $300 million of Ecuadorean government bonds.
 
BUYING LEVERAGE
 
''It doesn't mean that they are part of the Chávez camp but it would be disingenuous to say that this kind of deal doesn't buy leverage,'' said a foreign diplomat based in Quito, Ecuador's capital.
 
Relations with Cuban President Fidel Castro have also been strengthened, with Venezuela increasing its daily oil supplies from about 53,000 barrels per day to about 90,000 earlier this year.
 
More than 20,000 Cuban doctors, dentists and sports trainers are staffing Venezuelan social programs, whose attractiveness have strengthened Chávez's domestic popularity. In Uruguay, Chávez met left-wing President Tabaré Vázquez on Wednesday and was due to visit an oil refinery operated by Ancap, the state-owned oil, cement and alcohol company on Wednesday afternoon. Venezuela is offering to supply Ancap with crude on similar concessionary terms (with a chunk of the bill converted into a long-term low interest rate loan) as those extended to its Caribbean neighbors and could also make investments in La Teja refinery.
 
Venezuela is also examining possible investments in Pluna, the Uruguayan state-controlled airline in which Varig of Brazil recently sold a 49 percent stake.
 
In Argentina, Chávez is offering Santiago del Río, the state-owned shipbuilding yard, contracts to build at least two oil tankers. Other oil industry deals could be confirmed in Brasíla in a meeting on Thursday with the Brazilian president.
 
Chávez, Vázquez, Argentina's President Néstor Kirchner and Castro are also co-operating in the development of a South American 24-hour television station, known as Telesur.
 
ECONOMIC SCHEMES
 
Chávez is also nurturing other schemes designed to foster greater Latin American economic integration. Among the most ambitious is one in which the region's central banks would form a development bank for the region, using their reserves as capital.
 
Juan Tokatlian, director of political science and international relations at the University of San Andrés, in Buenos Aires, says that Argentina's acute need for energy and finance partly explain the connection with Chávez but that the Venezuelan leader's radicalism is resonant with the popular mood. ``The Latin American dilemma is that the enormous frustration of the 1990s (when liberal economic reforms were introduced) has revived interest in more critical alternatives.'