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Chavez Uses Russia to Play “International Poker”

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The following is an exclusive translation from today’s edition of El Nacional, a leading daily newspaper in Venezuela – an interview with an expert on Russia-Venezuela relations.

EL NACIONAL – Domingo 21 de Diciembre de 2008Mundo/14

Carlos Romero – an academic disapproves ideologization

Chavez operates with Russia like the Cold War

The UCV and Unimet professor argues that the government is looking to get into the international game through the rivalry between Washington and Moscow

BY ARMANDO AVELLANEDA

Politicization and ideologization are, for Carlos Romero, professor of international relations at the Central University of Venezuela and the Metropolitan, the words that best sum up in his judgment the management of Hugo Chavez’s diplomatic relations with Russia in 2008.

He does not think it is entirely negative that relations have been getting closer with Moscow. He regrets, however, that the president is using these relations to attack the United States and attempt to play “international poker.”

What impact does this have on diplomatic relations between Russiaand Venezuela in 2008? This relationship has been important in thecontext of the national diplomatic history. Chavez has politicized it.

This has two negative elements. First, the president is operatingwith Russia as though it were still the Cold War. Second, he’s usedRussia’s presence in Latin America as though there were a specialrelationship between Moscow and Caracas.

Russia is in the region. It always has been. The president DmitryMedvedev was in Lima for the APEC. The majority of countries maintaindiplomatic relations with this country.

Chavez, believing that it would be more imaginative to attack theUnited States and for the alleged importance of this link, madeRussia’s presence to include negative elements.

-What are these elements?

In the case of Russia, Chavez, in attempting to revive the Cold Wartheme, caused Russia’s presence in the country to be understood likethe arrival of communism and a confrontation with the United States.The President has wanted to position the relationship with Cuba in atriangular scheme, with an extra-continental military alliance withRussia. He has pressured the island to establish military relationswith Moscow and has offered the national territory to establish aRussian military base.

-Is this confirmed? In July Chavez denied stories regarding the base.

He has said it. The Russian presence isn’t anything extraordinary.Chavez sees it like this, because he believes that he can play”international poker,” dreaming of an extra-continental allianceagainst the United States. The rapprochement with Moscow isideological, an attempt to use this card against Washington.

-What does Venezuela mean for Russia?

Medvedev said: “I’m the president of a global power, I have theright to establish or re-establish relations with Latin America, andVenezuela is a buyer of arms to whom we sell just like melons orpapayas.”

Chavez is the one who has spoken out against Washington. The visitof Raul Castro demonstrated that the Cubans don’t want to enter into atriangle with Russia and Venezuela.

-The Russian Navy was in Cuba. Isn’t this a sign of rapprochement?

The Russian fleet in the Caribbean isn’t armed. It is an innocentstep and a symbolic show, an answer to the American advance in thesecurity zone of Eastern Europe.

There are differences between Washington and Moscow over U.S. aid toGeorgia over South Ossetia, the anti-missile shield in Poland and theCzech Republic, and the possibility of the Ukraine and Georgia enteringinto NATO. Chavez wants to get into the international game of thesedisputes taking advantage of the rivalry between the United States andRussia.

-How does this benefit Russia and Venezuela?

For Russia, the benefit is to anger the United States and to sell arms.

-The president says that the relationship is strategic.

I don’t see any greater importance to the relationship. I don’t knowhow far the Russians will go with Venezuela. The fact that there isparticipation of public and private Russian business in the Orinocobelt is normal.

Chavez politicized the Russian presence when he said that it is aresponse to the lack of American investment. For the Russians, theproblem is business.

-How important is Brazil for Russia? More important than Venezuela?

It always has been. Ever since Soviet times, Argentina and Brazilwere fundamental in the diplomatic and comercial relationships betweenRussia and Latin America. In the cold War, there was interest in theCuban case, Nicaragua and Chile, but always maintaining a duality:developing revolutionary movements and parties, and at the same timedeepening and widening political, economic, and commercial relations.In this regard, Brazil and Argentina were the focus.

-What did the military exercises carried out in the country mean?

The exercises were technically restricted to the coordination ofintelligence and telecommunications: there were no war games. There wasnot heavy armament on the ships. It was symbolic. For the FAN(Venezuelan Armed Forces – trans.), the controversial topic was whetheror not the purchases of arms is appropriate, and who is benefitingfrom it. There has been little coherence in this. It is because it hasbeen ideologized, and leaves open a question: Does Venezuela have thecapacity and necessity to arm itself to the teeth? Does it have this?The question remains left open. They would have to clarify why we arebuying arms. The Russian presence in the country is not what Chavezwants us to understand, but neither has the opposition shown itself.

-Is Russia’s presence in the country negative?

At the moment I don’t see it as negative. If we had a differentgovernment here, democratic, with a foreign policy that continued thetradition of multipolarity, Russia could play a good role. We shouldnot reject it. We must have relations with Moscow, as well as withWashington. The problem is that, as Chavez thinks in bipolar terms, hebelieves that allying with Russia can shatter the dependence on theUnited States.

-What will be the future of the relationship in 2009?

It will depend upon how it is presented. With Russia there are fourquestions. Will it continue its nationalist policy and energy blackmailwith deliveries of oil and gas to Eastern Europe? Will it accept theanti-missile shield and the installation of military instruments in theRussian hinterlands? Will the negative economic cycle affect them? Howill the West tolerate a regression in terms of democracy, humanrights, freedom of press, and economic freedom? If Russia hardens itsrelations with Europe and with Barack Obama, the links between Moscowand Washington will be bad, worse than they were with George W. Bush.Chavez could take advantage of the ideology character of the alliancewith Russia. If the opposite happens, that Medvedev recognizes hislimitations and improves relations with Washington, Chavez will havefewer opportunities to play “international poker.” In this case, ifthere is a negative relationship between Obama and Chavez, Moscow wouldlower its profile in the country, less than they have now.

Photo:  Venezuela‘s President Hugo Chavez, right, and Russia‘s President Dmitry Medvedev visit the Admiral Chabanenko, a Russian destroyer docked at La Guaira port, Venezuela, Thursday, Nov. 27, 2008. (AP Photo by Dmitri Astakhov)