Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez, the leftist populist with bags of petrodollars to spread around, often seems set on riling the United States. And he appears to be intent upon doing it again, this time by pressing to acquire nuclear technology.
The leader has publicly addressed with Iran the sharing of nuclear know-how among have-not countries, and recently his government broached with Argentina the subject of buying a nuclear reactor.
Whether Mr. Chávez is sincere about an interest in nuclear power or has latched onto the topic as one more way to tweak the US remains unclear. Chávez has been very public with his rantings against the Bush administration, and he makes a point of keeping company with thorns in the administration's side - whether it's Cuban strongman Fidel Castro or new Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
But less murky is the jolting impact that nuclear discussions with Argentina are having in the hemisphere - especially with less than a month before President Bush travels to Argentina to meet with hemispheric leaders.
"It's a wakeup call to pay attention to Latin America," says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington. "The Americans will lean on Argentina and maybe this will just go away, but at the same time it's a reminder that this issue [of spreading nuclear technology] is not just something happening in far places."
In Caracas Tuesday, Venezuelan officials stressed the preliminary and exploratory nature of the recent talks with Argentina. But at the same time, Vice President José Vicente Rangel said he expects Chávez's opponents to use the topic to continue a "dirty campaign" against the Venezuelan leader.
For the moment, the US is resisting taking Chávez's bait, to the extent the Venezuelan leader is aiming to raise US hackles. "We would expect that all states would adhere to their Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations, and that any and all civilian nuclear programs or developments would take place in strict adherence to both NPT obligations and safeguards agreements," said State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli on Tuesday.
US officials have a couple of motivations for smoothing the ripples by saying, as one did Tuesday, that Venezuela's interest in nuclear technology is "not at the top of our list of priorities." For one thing, Venezuela is only at the talking stage with Argentina. But more important, Mr. Bush is traveling south next month - to Argentina for a summit of the Americas, and then to Brazil and Panama. And he wants to attend as a leader emphasizing diplomacy, not as one embroiled in controversy with another leader.
As for Chávez, experts say he has his own mixed reasons for keeping the nuclear issue in the spotlight. "It's certainly part of his game with the US to keep Washington off balance, and he knows that anything to do with nuclear technology is going to get Washington's attention," says Julian Ludmer, a Latin America analyst with the Stratfor intelligence consulting firm in Washington. "He doesn't want Washington to forget he's someone to reckon with."
But at the same time, Mr. Ludmer says Chávez is serious about pursuing nuclear technology, in particular as a component of a long-range plan for energy cooperation among South American countries. And behind the idea of energy cooperation is energy independence, he adds - which could be a means of building the continent's political independence.
"If Washington has fewer levers to pull, then Venezuela can worry less about the influence the US has with its [Venezuela's] neighbors," Ludmer says. He notes that Chávez put the emphasis on regional energy cooperation at a recent South America summit, and that he has been talking to Brazil as well as Argentina about sharing technology.
Still, with Bush set to step down on Argentine soil in less than a month and meet with Argentine President Néstor Kirchner, some analysts say the issue is putting Argentina in a difficult position.
"The government isn't anxious to be known as a provider of sensitive technology to Chávez, but at the same time it has good relations with Venezuela and has political reasons for keeping them good," says Oscar Raúl Cardoso, a foreign-policy analyst in Buenos Aires.
The topic is causing polemics in Argentina, where legislative elections will be held Oct. 23. Government-supporting candidates insist the government of President Kirchner would follow strict safeguard guidelines for a sale, as it has in the past in selling to Australia and Egypt, among other countries. But some right-of-center opposition candidates have cited the discussions as evidence of dangerous relations with a country that one candidate said is tending under Chávez toward "totalitarianism."
Mr. Sokolski in Washington says that while past sales may have indeed taken place with full safeguards, there is no guarantee that technology wouldn't be used outside treaty limitations for illicit purposes - including weapons development. At the same time, he says that past approval from Washington of Argentina's sales to other countries would mean that Washington would risk being called hypocritical if it opposed a sale to Venezuela.