CARACAS, Venezuela -- President Hugo Chavez has recently accused President Bush of plotting to assassinate him, made suggestive comments about Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, visited Fidel Castro in Cuba, bashed the United States on the al-Jazeera television network and traveled to Libya to receive an award from Moammar Gaddafi.
Such bluster and anti-American showmanship are nothing new from the fiery former paratrooper. But concern in Washington has been rising as Chavez has worked feverishly in recent months to match his words with deeds.
Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, left, and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez held a joint news conference on Friday near Caracas.
(Jorge Silva -- Reuters)
Since threatening to cut off oil shipments to the United States, which buys 1.5 million barrels a day from Venezuela, Chavez has been traveling the globe looking for new markets and allies to unite against "the imperialist power." He recently signed energy deals with France, India and China, which is searching for new sources of oil to power its industrial expansion. Chavez also has made a series of arms purchases, including one for military helicopters from Russia.
And on Friday, Chavez hosted President Mohammad Khatami of Iran, a nation that has a secretive nuclear program and has been labeled by Bush as part of an "axis of evil."
"Iran has every right . . . to develop atomic energy and to continue its research in that area," Chavez said at a joint appearance with Khatami. "All over the world, there is a clamor for equality . . . and profound rejection of the imperialist desires of the U.S. government. Faced with the threat of the U.S. government against our brother people in Iran, count on us for all our support."
Gerver Torres, a former Venezuelan government minister who now runs a private development agency, said such statements illustrate one of Chavez's key goals. "His main motivation now is to do everything he possibly can to negatively affect the United States, Bush in particular," Torres said. "He is trying to bring together all the enemies of the United States. He believes the United States is the devil."
While U.S. analysts said they doubt Chavez could afford to severely cut shipments to the United States, which buys 60 percent of Venezuela's oil exports, they are still paying careful attention to his statements. Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) has asked the Government Accountability Office to study how a sharp decrease in Venezuelan oil imports might affect the U.S. economy.
Although Chavez has suggested he would "use oil" to fight American power, other Venezuelan officials have expressed a far more businesslike view of the relationship. In an interview, Andres Izarra, Chavez's information minister, said Venezuela had no plans to stop selling oil to the United States, which he called "our natural energy market."
The government says it produces 3.1 million barrels a day of oil, but independent analysts put the figure closer to 2.6 million. Izarra said the country aimed to boost its oil production to about 5 million barrels a day in the next five years, so there would be plenty of oil to serve both the United States and new customers, such as China and India.
Still, Chavez's comments and actions, including the purchase of a substantial amount of foreign arms, have drawn sharp criticism from U.S. officials. In her Senate confirmation hearings in January, Rice called Chavez a "negative force in the region."
Chavez's arms purchases from Russia, including 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles, have also drawn protests from the State Department. He has bought military aircraft from Brazil and announced plans to buy radar equipment from China.
In a recent televised speech, Chavez described the arms purchases and a plan to increase army reserve troops as "an honorable answer to President Bush's intention of being the master of the world."
Chavez is the most vocal and visible symbol of a rising tide of anti-American sentiment in Latin America. Leaders in the region are increasingly disillusioned because a decade or more of the Washington prescription -- democracy and free-market economics -- has failed to alleviate poverty and economic inequality.
Six Latin American nations, most recently Uruguay, now have presidents whose views clash, in varying degrees, with Washington's. Another politician with sharp anti-Washington views, Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, is the early favorite in next year's presidential election, which could bring the trend to the banks of the Rio Grande.