Venezuela insisted on Monday that it had no intention of unilaterally cutting off oil supplies to the US and said that a deliberate interruption would only be in response to Washington’s “hostile” attitude turning to “aggression”.

Threats of a cut-off and the issue of how reliable the government of President Hugo Chávez is as an oil supplier to the US have become the central, though confusing, theme of the soured relationship between Washington and Caracas.

Regular threats by Mr Chávez to “cut off” oil to the US led Richard Lugar, chairmen of the Senate foreign relations committee, last month to urge the Bush administration to develop contingency plans for such a potential eventuality. A recent study undertaken by the US Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, estimated that a severance of oil supplies from Venezuela would lead to an $11 per barrel increase in the price of oil.

“Cut-off” threats are a staple element in statements made by Venezuelan officials, but semantic subtleties seem to cloud what would trigger such action. Rafael Ramírez, Venezuela’s energy minister, said in Tehran at the weekend, during an official visit by Mr Chávez to Iran, that “if the US wants to have a hostile policy towards us, we will stop exporting oil to that country”.

Venezuela, the world’s fifth-largest oil exporter, ships 1.5m barrels per day of oil to the US, accounting for about 11 per cent of US energy imports. However, Bernardo Alvarez, Venezuela’s ambassador to the US, insisted on Monday that while the Bush administration indeed maintained a “hostile” stance towards the Chávez government, Caracas wanted to keep supplying oil.

“There is no discrepancy in our position,” Mr Alvarez told the FT on Monday. In a letter sent to Mr Lugar last week, Mr Alvarez said “oil cut-off” comments “reflected solely what would be an understandable response by Venezuela to aggression against it initiated by the US government”. “Absent extraordinary circumstances, Venezuela intends to remain a generous supplier to take care of the US’s energy needs.”

Mr Alvarez said Venezuela was not responsible for the deterioration in the two countries’ energy dialogue.

Analysts said that because the US market accounted for about two-thirds of Venezuela’s oil exports, there appeared to be no economic logic to support the idea that the Chávez government would cease shipments.

“Venezuela cannot live without oil being exported to the US in the short and medium term,” said Roger Tissot, director for Latin America at PFC Energy, a consultancy based in Washington. “However, if the US were to think about regime change in Venezuela, or do something that threatened the Chávez administration, [Venezuela] would try to use oil as a weapon.”

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