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Venezuelan Red Flag

By George Friedman | New York Post

New York, 28 May 2005 | VENEZUELAN President Hugo Chavez has broached the idea of developing a nuclear program. Speaking on his regular "Hello President" program on May 22, he said: "We must start working on that area, the nuclear area. We could, along with Brazil, with Argentina and others, start investigations into the nuclear sector and ask for help from countries like Iran."

The statement, which follows a visit to Caracas by Iranian President Mohammed Khatami in March, was intended to be noticed and it was. The question is why he would have said it.

The United States regards Venezuela, under Chavez, as a hostile power. Chavez has charged that the United States is trying to overthrow him, perhaps by invasion. Washington has made it clear that removing Chavez would be a desirable goal, and has moved to publicly fund anti-Chavez groups in Venezuela.

What its less-public plans and intentions might be are unclear, but there is little doubt the United States would like to be rid of Chavez. Meeting with Iran's president did not endear Chavez to the United States, any more than making oil deals with China did. But then, Chavez does not intend to endear himself to the United States.

Raising the nuclear red flag, particularly in an Iranian context, would appear to simply invite an American response.

On the surface, Chavez appears to be taking an unnecessary risk in provoking the United States to act against him with a better public justification. One of the claims frequently made by Chavez's critics is that he is not to put too fine a point on it nuts. That is too convenient an explanation. Chavez is too effective a politician and has run too many rings around the United States to be written off that easily.

Chavez is, first and foremost, trying to maintain control of Venezuela. When the United States treats him as a major threat, it is actually strengthening his position. He can generate national pride simply by being taken seriously by Washington.

By asserting and frequently demonstrating that the Bush administration wants to unseat him, he signals his importance. The visit of significant world leaders to Caracas further strengthens his position.

Venezuela is not going to be a nuclear power in Chavez's lifetime. Nevertheless, the ability to speak seriously about becoming a nuclear power gives him a credibility with his political base that he always wants to shore up. If he is fortunate enough to be threatened by Washington, that simply makes his significance and his popularity soar.

This is not only the case in Venezuela. It is also the case in Latin America as a whole, where appearing to resist the United States gives Chavez more credibility still. Having support in the region especially support against U.S. interference from countries such as Brazil increases the survivability of his regime. It would be difficult to unseat Chavez, a democratically elected president, in Venezuela; doing so against the wishes of major regional powers would make the move much more costly.

Raising the issue of a nuclear program, therefore, helps Chavez secure his regime against Washington. Chavez knows the United States is not about to invade Venezuela; the Bush administration has no appetite for a war of occupation there. The U.S. move against Chavez would be covert. But for a covert move to succeed, it must not have massive blowback in the rest of Latin America. Everything that Chavez can do to increase his prestige and credibility in Latin America decreases the probability that he would be overthrown by any covert plan. If the plan were made public, the blowback would be intense and, paradoxically, increase Chavez's power.

Chavez isn't about to build a nuclear device, with or without Iran. He isn't even going to build a peaceful nuclear reactor anytime soon, if ever. And the United States isn't going to invade or launch a pre-emptive strike against a mythical nuclear capability. But Chavez has learned from North Korea and Iran that merely discussing nuclear weapons can provoke behavior from the United States that increases domestic support for the regime and causes foreign powers to circle their wagons solicitously.

It is unlikely that Washington will fall into Chavez's trap. The Bush administration knows that this is empty talk. But as such, it costs Chavez nothing and who knows? someone in Washington might utter a threat against him. That alone would whittle away at what little vulnerability Chavez now has. We expect Washington to remain silent on the issue, but there is always the unnamed source in the White House standing by to say something . . . well, nuts.

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