Venezuela Needs Attention

In the case of Venezuela, perhaps an oil crisis is the only way to get Washington's attention.

Since the war on terrorism and the White House's preoccupation with Iraq, analysts and diplomats connected with Latin America have complained about Washington's lack of focus on the region. Nowhere is this more apparent than in oil-rich Venezuela, where petroleum exports have been slashed by 90 percent since national strikes to oust President Hugo Chávez began Dec. 2.

Perhaps the threat of interrupted supplies and rising gas prices will be enough to rivet the administration's attention after recent bungled diplomatic moves vis-à-vis Venezuela.

Industry analysts say it's not out of the realm of possibility that Saddam Hussein could complicate the situation by using his oil clout to further throw world oil markets into turmoil.

Though analysts expect the strike to be over before any US military incursion in Iraq, economic consequences for the US can only build while the strike continues.

Venezuela is the fifth largest producer of crude for the United States, supplying 13 percent of US oil imports. Oil from the Middle East takes longer to reach the US than oil from Venezuela. And that means higher prices at the gas pump. The price of oil now is near a two-year high, just more than $30 a barrel.

With its possible effect on Middle East oil flows, the Venezuela crisis not only proves the interconnectedness of world events; it's proof positive that the United States needs to pay closer attention to parts of the world other than Iraq.

The Washington-Caracas relationship has been challenging, to say the least. Mr. Chávez, Venezuela's twice-elected president, is uncomfortably close to Cuba's Fidel Castro, and more dictator-like than democratic.

This pushed the Bush administration to prematurely bless a short-lived ouster of Chávez earlier this year, only to see him return to power. And the White House embarrassed itself recently by calling for early elections, a move that would violate Venezuela's Constitution. Analysts attribute such misteps to lack of a coherent policy.

Venezuela's economy has worsened since Chávez assumed power in 1998, underscoring the need for much greater US attention to the country's plight, especially since the opposition, which organized the strike in the first place, doesn't appear to have a well-formulated plan of its own to uplift Venezuela's people.

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