"Oilmen are like cats; you can never tell from the sound of them whether they are fighting or making love," said the famous Armenian entrepreneur Calouste Gulbenkian, as oil companies and Western governments at a post-World War I summit in Ostend, Belgium, carved up oil rights in Iraq and the Persian Gulf.
Now, even as world attention is riveted on Iraq, military and oil company agendas seem to be converging in South America's Orinoco Basin, which holds the greatest proven reserves outside the Persian Gulf. The region is split by the border between Colombia, Washington's closest South American ally, and Venezuela, ruled by a left-populist government sharply at odds with the White House.
Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez would do well to heed Gulbenkian's warning. Chavez has just entered into an agreement with ChevronTexaco for a natural gas project that will span the Colombian border.
The Colombian oil heartland of Arauca is one the country's most violent regions. It lies just across the Rio Arauca from Venezuela's own Orinoco Basin oil heartland.
Arauca's main oil field is Caņo-Limon, run by California-based Occidental Petroleum. Many of the 800 U.S. military advisers in Colombia are assigned to Arauca, where they oversee a new Colombian anti-guerilla army unit especially created to police Caņo-Limon. This project, for which Occidental lobbied heavily, markedly departs from the U.S. policy of only assisting "narcotics enforcement" in Colombia.
Some fear the oil field could become a base for aggression against Venezuela. Oscar Caņas, adviser to Colombia's Central Workers Union, told Venezuelan journalist Alfredo Carquez, "They are transforming the Caņo-Limon facilities into a small military fort." Claiming U.S. advisers and surveillance planes are now based there, Caņas notes Caņo-Limon's proximity to the border and reports of Colombian paramilitary attacks on the Venezuelan side. "Who is to guarantee that all this is not being used against Venezuela?" he asks.
Colombia is the third largest recipient of U.S. military aid, after Israel and Egypt, and U.S. training of Colombian military personnel is rapidly escalating. Meanwhile, Washington is launching a major propaganda push against Venezuela.
A March statement from the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), "South America -- the Next Swamp?" warns that even as the United States is "draining the swamp" in Afghanistan, "ideological killers are regrouping with the aid of leftist governments and drug lords" in the western hemisphere. The principal "leftist government" in question is that of Chavez.
JINSA, a top advocate of the Iraq adventure, cites a London Times report (actually based on Colombian government allegations) that mortar experts from the Irish Republican Army have set up a training camp for Colombian guerillas on Venezuelan territory in the Sierra de Perija, a mountain chain that forms the border north of Arauca.
Another salvo comes from Otto Reich, who was Bush's assistant secretary of state for hemispheric affairs, a former ambassador to Venezuela and a key figure in the Reagan-era covert destabilization campaign against Nicaragua. Reich, in the April 11 National Review, writes: "The first task of the U.S., and whatever coalition of the willing it can muster in the region, is to confront the dangerous alliance posed by Cuba and Venezuela."
Chavez is inviting new multinational investment for the oil zone. In August 2001, Venezuela, Colombia and Texaco agreed to sponsor a study on a new pipeline linking natural gas fields in La Guajira, on Colombia's Caribbean coast, to Maracaibo, Venezuela's main export terminal.
In May 2003, Venezuela announced new oil finds of up to 2.4 billion barrels in the Orinoco. Texaco (which merged with Chevron in 2001) proposed another pipeline to pump the crude to the coast. On April 1, 2005, ChevronTexaco announced a multibillion-dollar investment in the new oil field.
But oil companies have a sweeter deal in Colombia, where Uribe is moving to free the industry from public oversight. Chavez, in contrast, has boosted royalties companies must pay to fund his ambitious social programs.
La Guajira is another of Colombia's most violent regions, with a string of assassinations of indigenous leaders, presumably by paramilitary forces, already reported this year. The new cross-border pipeline may bring human rights abuses to Venezuela as well as gas.
This pipeline would cross the Sierra de Perija, where Uribe and JINSA now claim Colombian guerillas are based. On April 4, hundreds of indigenous peoples' representatives from the Venezuelan side of the mountains marched in Caracas, demanding a halt to coal mining on their traditional lands by such companies as ChevronTexaco and Shell. The new pipeline would add to the military and ecological pressures they face.
Chavez is in a difficult position. He needs oil and gas revenues to fund the populist programs that guarantee his popularity. But cooperating with the multinational agenda in the border zone may cost him support among indigenous peoples. And, some critics warn, he may be welcoming the very oil companies that are complicit in the destabilization drive against him.
PNS contributor Bill Weinberg is editor of World War 4 Report. He is working on a book about Colombia for Verso Books.
Also by Bill Weinberg:
The Afghan 'Dark Alliance': Journalist's Death Recalls Legacy of CIA's Drug-Fueled Wars
Bush's Other Oil War
In Venezuelan Referendum, U.S. May Root for Chavez
Chavez's Clowning at Summit Hits a Chord in Latin America
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