By Phil Gunson in Caracas
He rails against globalisation, but few political leaders are more global than Venezuela’s peripatetic leftwing President Hugo Chávez, who this weekend returned from his second 10-day foreign trip in less than six weeks.
Beijing or Luanda, Havana or Damascus, the struggle, and the enemy, is identical for the man who promises to “save the world” from capitalism and liberal democracy.
Although a presidential election is just three months away, and Mr Chávez is seeking a fresh, six-year term, he has devoted more time to winning Venezuela a seat on the UN Security Council. His adversary, he argues, is the same in both cases: the man he now calls “the devil”.
“There are just two candidates [in the December election],” he told supporters at an election rally on Friday: “Hugo Chávez and George ‘Devil’ Bush.”
If the opposition wanted to prove they were not “lackeys of imperialism”, he added, they had just one choice: to join the revolution.
Washington is urging support for Guatemala for the non-permanent Security Council seat to be vacated by Argentina next month. Its worries are no longer merely regional. Mr Chávez, for whom Latin America is too small a stage, is now a headache on a world scale.
In July he visited Iran, promising unconditional support to the government of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, which is defying Security Council calls to suspend its nuclear programme. He also withdrew his diplomatic representative from Tel Aviv and threatened to sever relations with Israel, comparing the country’s bombing of Lebanon to the Holocaust.
The result, says political analyst Alberto Garrido, is that the Middle East conflict has been introduced into Latin America, and Venezuela – which had traditionally remained neutral – is now, “directly involved”.
There is a distinction, commentators say, between the alliances Mr Chávez has forged with countries such as Syria, Iran and Cuba, which share his goal of creating an anti-US front, and those with Russia and China – although all look set to vote for him at the UN.
According to Elie Habalian, Venezuela’s former governor on the board of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, and a specialist in the geopolitics of oil, China and Russia are “pragmatic – they take what they like from Mr Chávez and leave what doesn’t suit them”.
Russia has sold arms to Venezuela but President Vladimir Putin stressed, during Mr Chávez’s Moscow visit in July, that the move did not imply an alliance against the US.
The Chinese, who are also expected to vote for Venezuela, are benefiting from privileged access to the country’s oil and gas reserves, and deals involving the construction of drilling rigs and supertankers.
In Beijing, Venezuelan energy minister Rafael Ramírez announced last week that by 2010 the country would supply 500,000 barrels a day of oil to China (up from 150,000), and that joint investments in the Venezuelan energy sector were expected to total $5bn (€3.9bn, £2.6bn). But the Chinese, too, have refrained from joining Mr Chávez’s anti-US campaign.
From Syria and Iran, on the other hand, have come statements of support, and recognition of Mr Chávez’s status as a world leader. In Damascus, Mr Chávez and President Bashir Assad signed a joint statement declaring themselves “firmly united against imperialist aggression and the hegemonic intentions of the US empire”.
Syria, Cuba and Venezuela were the only three countries to vote in the International Atomic Energy Authority against the referral of Iran’s nuclear programme to the Security Council. Now,” says Garrido, “that IAEA axis has been transferred to the political sphere.”
Just as Chávez was preparing to meet in Damascus with Assad, Cuba’s Raúl Castro was receiving a Syrian delegation in Havana. The Syrians say Assad will travel to Cuba for the Non-Aligned Movement summit this month, and also has plans for a visit to Caracas.
Mr Chávez told civilian and military leaders of his “Bolivarian revolution” late in 2004 that Venezuela would use “all possible strategies” against the US from “mobile defence against the giant, to attack”, although he quickly added, to laughter, that: “An invasion of the United States is not envisaged, so don’t note that down for now.”
Aside from its concern that Mr Chávez could make consensus impossible in the Council, the US also has an energy worry: Iran and Venezuela together produce more than 6m barrels of oil a day, and both have threatened to cut exports if attacked.
Mr Habalian describes Mr Chávez’s plan to lead a global, anti-US alliance as overly ambitious, arguing that by backing Iran, for instance, “he turns the whole of the moderate Arab world against him”. But he expects Venezuela to keep using the oil weapon, “to win allies and neutralise potential adversaries”.