Pubdate: Fri, 29 Dec 2000
Source: San Jose Mercury News (CA)
Copyright: 2000 San Jose Mercury News
Contact:  750 Ridder Park Drive, San Jose, CA 95190
Fax: (408) 271-3792
Author: Tad Szulc
Note: Tad Szulc visited Iraq and the rest of the Middle East earlier this 
year. He is the author, among other books, of a biography of Fidel Castro. 
He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.


THE improbable but fast-growing friendship of three career military
revolutionaries -- Fidel Castro of Cuba, Saddam Hussein of Iraq and
Hugo Chavez of Venezuela -- poses an urgent challenge to U.S.
interests worldwide and to President-elect George W. Bush. It is a
friendship with considerable power: Venezuela and Iraq are among the
top 10 oil exporters in the world, and Cuba is a beneficiary of their
largess and, in Venezuela's case, a mentor of revolution.

Meanwhile, United Nations economic sanctions against Iraq, imposed
after the Persian Gulf War nearly 10 years ago, and the
four-decade-long U.S. economic embargo against Cuba, following the
1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, are crumbling. Allies and U.S. businesses
are increasingly violating or ignoring both embargoes, and there is
virtually nothing Washington seems able to do about it. Earlier this
month, the U.N. Security Council overrode U.S. objections and released
$525 million from its Iraqi oil fund for use in upgrading Saddam's oil

Quintessentially, the Castro-Saddam-Chavez connection is anti-American
and anti-capitalistic, but not in an ideological way. What matters to
the three is domestic power built upon a base of nationalism that they
believe legitimizes their policies.

In a way, this bizarre trio also represents the rebirth, a half
century later, of the kind of nationalist populism spawned by Gen.
Juan Peron in Argentina and Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt. Castro and
Saddam gained power through armed revolutions; Chavez, a paratroopers'
lieutenant colonel, was democratically elected in 1998, after serving
time for trying to overthrow the government in 1992.

Chavez is unquestionably the most intriguing new leader to emerge in
Latin America since Castro -- and he is the linchpin between Castro
and Saddam. Although Cuba had been sending doctors and health workers
to Iraq for years, there had not been any major contacts between the
two countries until Chavez appeared on the scene. This fall, Chavez
became the first democratically elected foreign head of state to visit
Iraq since the gulf war, ostensibly to invite Saddam to a summit of
the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. But it also was an
unmistakable in-your-face gesture toward the United States.
Coincidentally or not, Chavez's helicopter trek to Baghdad from the
Iraqi border was followed by increasing numbers of commercial flights
from France, Russia, Jordan and much of the Middle East.

With France and Russia, two of the five veto-wielding members of the
U.N. Security Council, determined to see the sanctions against Iraq
ended, the United States can do little to prevent them from withering
away. Saddam has no intention of allowing U.N. weapons inspectors back
into his country, and he knows that renewed bombing of Iraq is out of
the question. Confident that the United States and the British would
not risk shooting down a civilian airliner in the southern or northern
"no-fly" zone, Saddam has resumed regular domestic commercial
flights for the first time in a decade.

Iraq has the world's second-largest reserves of oil (after Saudi
Arabia), which it exports legally under U.N. controls and smuggles out
on a huge scale. Saddam is not short of cash for whatever adventure
next occurs to him, and in concert with Chavez, he can influence the
international oil supply and its prices.

As for Venezuela, a main source of U.S. imported oil, Chavez has been
raising his profile within OPEC, having presided in Caracas in late
September over the second-ever summit of that organization's heads of
state and governments. A Venezuelan is currently chairman of OPEC.

The Iraqi link is one aspect of Chavez's international involvements
that the United States must not underestimate, with Cuba playing a
central role. Since he took office in February 1999, Chavez has
proclaimed his "identification" with the Cuban revolution. He
visited Havana and entertained Castro in Caracas for five days last
October. Castro treated Chavez as a son, an attitude seldom displayed
by the Cuban leader toward any young people. During that same visit,
Chavez granted Cuba large crude-oil price discounts.

Castro is Chavez's guide in the art of gently and gradually
introducing authoritarian government to Venezuela. Chavez abolished
the Senate and established a unicameral parliament whose members
support him. He has a new constitution, approved by a simple majority
of voters in a referendum, that grants him considerable power.

To complicate matters and his relations with the United States, Chavez
has been openly supporting leftist guerrilla movements in neighboring
Colombia. The rebels control big swaths of Colombian territory, along
with numerous coca plantations. Last month, Chavez invited two
Colombian rebel leaders, including the daughter of the chief of the
principal guerrilla movement, to address the "Latin American
Parliament" held in the national legislative chamber. Washington has
already committed $1.3 billion, mainly in military aid, to the
eradication of both guerrillas and coca plantations.

This could foreshadow a big U.S. commitment in Colombia and an
eventual conflict with Chavez that may interfere with the flow of oil
north from Venezuela.
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