domingo, 12 de outubro de 2008

Hugo Chavez in Portugal... again

02 October 2008

Hugo Chavez (second from left), pictured here with Portuguese Economy Minister Manuel Pinho (left), Prime Minister José Sócrates (centre) and Minister for Public Works, Mário Lino (far right)

Of all the European countries, Portugal seems to have found a special place in the heart and mind of Venezuela’s maverick President Hugo Chavez.

He has visited Lisbon no fewer than four times in just 10 months and has a particularly close relationship with José Sócrates, who visited Venezuela earlier in the year.

It seems a relationship in stark contrast to that with the United States, which he irritated by staging naval war games with the Russians off the Venezuelan coast recently. Or with Spain, for that matter, with whom relations hit rock bottom after King Juan Carlos famously asked him “why don’t you just shut up?” at a summit for Latin American and Spanish speaking countries.

Visiting a small country like Portugal so frequently - which doesn’t have oil, precious metals, advanced technological know-how or a vast export market – seems, at first glance, strange.

Hugo Chavez was in Lisbon on Saturday to cement the signing of a series of eight economic accords between the two countries at FIL in the city’s Parque das Nações.

So what exactly is it that Portugal has got that seems to attract the fruitcake leader to Lisbon like a fly to a lamp?


Perhaps the question should be inverted. Why is Venezuela so important for its Minister for the Economy Manuel Pinho and Minister for Public Works, Mário Lino?

One answer is a similar one as the question, why is Libya so important to the United States all of a sudden?

The answer is oil – Venezuela is the eighth largest oil producer in the world and Portugal has known economic dependencies on this black gold.

But it is its relationship with Lisbon, much more than flogging off one million heavily subsidised Magalhães laptop computers to Venezuelan schools, or millions of pre-fabricated homes to re-house the country’s desperately poor urban dwellers living in slums and shanty towns on the outskirts of Caracas.

For Chavez the relationship with Portugal is worth infinitely more than the 10,000 barrels of oil sold to it per day.

“Chavez has clear political objectives in setting foot so often on Portuguese soil,” says Peter Molina, Professor of International Relations at the Department of Political Sciences at the University of Los Andes.

“He might think he has an ideological friend in Sócrates, but left-wing politicians in Latin America are worlds apart in terms of beliefs than in Europe,” he added in a telephone interview with the Portuguese daily newspaper Público last week.

True, there are more than half-a-million Portuguese living in Venezuela doing very nicely, thank-you, economically in small and medium-sized companies, which is an excellent excuse to use Portugal, who is liked and listened to by everyone in Europe, as a useful springboard to lucrative European Union markets.

On the other side of the coin, Manuel Pinho, the Minister for the Economy and Innovation, has been working tirelessly promoting Portuguese small and medium-sized construction and technology-led companies in developing Latin American and North African states to make up for lost investment from the EU which has fled to Eastern Europe.

Other Western countries, too, have seemed anxious to get into bed recently with the extreme left regime and its madcap leader who praises the Russians, Cubans and hurls abuse at the Americans. Chavez has been received by France, Spain and Italy this year alone.

Carlos Gaspar at the Portuguese Institute for International Relations at Lisbon’s Nova University explains: “Chavez is trying to step into the shoes vacated by the ailing Fidel Castro as anti-American leader and champion or ‘caudillo’ of the Latin American states.

“This gives him popularity and profile in Latin America but isolates him from the rest of the word, and Europe. Portugal can act as an insulator to lessen the effects of that isolation and open up markets in Europe,” he concludes.


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