Int. Herald Tribune
Caracas visits Baghdad, angering Washington

Chavez, defiant, tells OPEC to show its power

Brian Knowlton

Paris, Friday, August 11, 2000


President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela traveled to Iraq on Thursday, becoming the first head of state to visit the country since the 1991 Gulf War.

The visit, and Mr. Chavez's planned talks with President Saddam Hussein, drew sharp protests in Washington. A State Department official said Thursday that Iraq was using the trip "as a propaganda tool."

The U.S. State Department spokesman, Richard Boucher, had earlier called it "particularly galling" that the first state visit to Iraq since the Gulf War was being made by a democratically elected leader.

But Iraq welcomed the visit as a step back from the international isolation it has suffered since its troops invaded Kuwait in 1990.

Mr. Chavez, who went to Iraq in his current tour of OPEC countries, brushed off the U.S. criticism. "We have our dignity," he said. "Venezuela is a sovereign country that can take the decisions it sees fit."

Earlier, after meeting with President Mohammed Khatami of Iran, Mr. Chavez made a defiant call for greater OPEC unity and influence.

"The time has come for OPEC to show its power," he said, according to an Iranian state radio report monitored by Agence France-Presse.

"The only way to counter international pressure is for OPEC to strengthen its political will."

Venezuela holds the rotating presidency of OPEC, and Mr. Chavez was half-way through a tour of the 10 fellow member-states of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

With OPEC under pressure from industrialized countries to increase production and lower prices, Mr. Chavez has been seeking greater cartel unity in defense of oil prices. Venezuela will host an OPEC summit meeting beginning Sept. 27 in Caracas, the first time cartel leaders will have convened since 1975.

Because of United Nations sanctions banning international flights to and from Iraq, Mr. Chavez first flew to Tehran, then to the border town of Kermanshah, then took a helicopter to the Mothuriyah area before boarding a black Iranian government limousine to cross the border. Because his circuitous travel did not violate any UN sanctions.

Accompanied by Venezuela's top oil and energy officials, Mr. Chavez flew Thursday in Mr. Saddam's presidential helicopter to Baghdad, where OPEC was founded in 1960, for his planned meeting with Mr. Saddam.

The Iraqi president had been expected to meet him at a Baghdad airport but, for explained reasons, was not there.

The official Iraqi press praised Mr. Chavez for defying the U.S. will. "We salute him for his principled moral stand" in the face of "silly American criticism," said an editorial in the newspaper Thawra.

Mr. Chavez's trip has helped ease past frictions with Iraq caused by the flouting of OPEC production quotas by Venezuela, the only Latin American member of the cartel and a major oil supplier to the United States.

Iraqi Oil Ministry officials now say they can work with Venezuela to lobby against production increases, in defiance of Saudi Arabia. The world's leading oil producer, Saudi Arabia said last month that it would increase its oil production by up to 500,000 barrels per day.

Iraq, not a part of the cartel's quota system, now exports about 2.5 millionbarrels a day of crude oil under the oil-for-food program established by theUnited Nations to help relieve Iraqi suffering after years of economic sanctions.

Mr. Chavez has angered the United States in the past by seeking improved relations with countries such as Cuba and China.



Original article