Hurricane Chávez

Sunday, September 24, 2006

HUGO CHAVEZ got the attention that he craves by comparing President Bush to Satan last week. But the Venezuelan leader's absurd talk may be less threatening than his equally absurd incompetence. Since Mr. Chávez took power seven years ago, Venezuela has mismanaged its oil so disastrously that production may have fallen by almost half, according to the estimates of outsiders, reducing global oil supply by a bit more than 1 percent. Along with natural disasters and Nigerian rebels, Mr. Chávez's ineptitude has contributed to high energy prices.

It takes sustained determination to reduce output by that much, and Mr. Chávez has provided it. He inherited a competent national oil company that produced three times more per worker than its Mexican counterpart. He immediately starved it of investment capital and dispatched ignorant political cronies to oversee it. When this abuse provoked a strike, Mr. Chávez fired the staff en masse, getting rid of two-thirds of the skilled employees and managers.

Mr. Chávez imagines that he can damage the United States by rerouting Venezuelan oil to other markets. He fails to understand that oil is fungible: If Venezuela's crude is sold to the Chinese, the Chinese will buy less of it elsewhere, freeing up supplies for U.S. consumers. But Mr. Chávez also appears oblivious to the technical difficulties in sending oil halfway round the world rather than selling it in his own hemisphere. Oil tankers do not come cheap, and China will have to build special refineries to process the heavy brand of crude that Venezuela produces. Despite Mr. Chávez's bluster about tripling exports to China in three years, Venezuela will depend on Yanqui consumers for the foreseeable future.

To the extent that Mr. Chávez's wild talk stirs up anti-American feeling, he must be regarded as an irritant. If he secures a temporary seat on the U.N. Security Council, as he hopes to do next month, he will doubtless render U.N. diplomacy even more challenging than it is already. Yet it is not the United States but rather Mr. Chávez's own countrymen who should most fear his intentions. Venezuela's courts, media organizations and civil society groups have been bullied into submission, and Mr. Chávez is talking about a constitutional change that would allow him to remain in power indefinitely. "The people should not be stripped of their right if they wish to reelect a compatriot whoever it may be three, four, five, six times," he said recently.

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