Hundreds of years ago, Machiavelli advised rulers facing unpopularity at home to consider picking a fight with some other city-state or nation, noting that a threat, even a phony threat, from some foreign power tends to unite people and help them to forget their differences (and discontent with the ruler).
Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez is only the most recent ruler to take this advice to heart.
It’s uncanny. President Chavez has been able to take steps toward building what he calls socialism in Venezuela and send money to would-be allies abroad almost solely because Venezuela is an oil-rich, oil-exporting country at a time of sky-high world petroleum prices.
Having had the state take over the petroleum business, however, Chavez has found ways not only to squander the money but to make production less efficient, partly by not keeping the infrastructure repaired (why spend on such mundane matters when there are votes to be bought?).
In addition, his price controls have predictably led to food shortages, which, naturally, disproportionately hurt the poor, about whom he is supposedly so paternally concerned. So does he reconsider price controls? Hardly. Instead he is busy prosecuting poor people who have been smuggling food across the border from Colombia.
How to neutralize this unrest, which has been getting more noticeable since voters rejected his dictator-for-life referendum back in December? Well, ExxonMobil, which had property seized when Venezuela took over all aspects of oil production for the state, has gone to courts in Holland and the U.S. to get compensation, and has gotten some preliminary judgments freezing some of what are now state assets.
Well. If a Latin American dictator can’t get some traction out of attacking a multinational oil company he shouldn’t be in the game. But Chavez has gone one better. He says if the big bad oil company actually tries to get those court orders enforced, he’ll cut off oil supplies to the U.S.
It’s an empty threat, of course. The U.S. is Venezuela’s biggest oil customer. If Chavez carried through on his threat, the U.S. would get oil elsewhere, perhaps at a slightly higher price. And because petroleum is a world market, some of it might even be Venezuelan, delivered through a middleman or two. Even refusing to sell Venezuelan oil to anyone wouldn’t affect the market all that much.
Still, you’ve got to give Hugo points for bluster.