The South American Nuclear Genie

Faced with the possibility of decreasing crude oil prices, a crimp to his “petro-democracy” antics throughout the Americas, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez appears to be preparing a new political talisman to generate headlines and regional mischief: the nuclear power genie.  With Russia’s cooperation, Chavez says he will start a civilian nuclear power program.  If this announcement had been made by virtually any other leader in the region, this would not be news.  However, Hugo Chavez’s nuclear intentions need to be closely monitored. 

On paper, Venezuela has deposited, ratified, or signed various nuclear non-proliferation treaties.  For example by 1975, Venezuela had ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).  It was also one of the first countries in Latin America in 1967 to sign the Treaty of Tlatelolco that declared Latin America and the Caribbean a nuclear weapons free zone.  More recently, Venezuelan diplomats  condemned nuclear weapons testing by North Korea.  Indeed, Venezuelan diplomats have said all the right things with regards to peaceful uses of nuclear technology at various international conferences and meetings.  Unfortunately, with regards to the current leadership of the Venezuela, the U.S. and region cannot rely treaties and diplomatic statements alone. 

One of the more concerning and, in some ways truly mysterious issues surrounding Venezuela and nuclear power, is Venezuela’s relation with state sponsor of terror Iran.  For years there has been speculation that Venezuela has supported Iran’s nuclear ambitions in exchange for nuclear technology and information.  Based on information in the public domain and in discussions with various knowledgeable sources in town, all we have is speculation and nebulous rhetoric.  Along the same lines, experts believe that Venezuela has sought advice from Cuba in this area.  In 1997, due to pressure by the U.S. on various countries, Cuba was forced to abandon its Russian nuclear reactor program at Juragua.  Cuba could be passing along its many lessons learned from this experience. 

Last Friday the Krelim announced that in addition to naval military exercises with Venezuela and a one billion loan to purchase Russian arms, Vladimir Putin had told Chavez in Moscow that Russia was “ready to consider the possibility of cooperation in nuclear energy.”  This week, Chavez has stated in the media that Venezuela, as have neighbors Argentina and Brazil, should also pursue a civilian nuclear power program.   “Brazil has various nuclear reactors, so does Argentina. We will have ours,” said Chavez. 

If Venezuela were serious about embarking on a civilian nuclear energy program, Chavez should talk less political gibberish and put in motion an orderly and transparent process, with IAEA assistance, that clearly lays out their plan.  Chavez has not done that.  Rather, he is engaging in a game of reckless political rhetoric.  Why is Chavez waving the nuclear talisman? 

Faced with growing and organized opposition at home, Chavez needs new politcal “demons” to obfuscate and distract Venezuelan voters.  His quixotic Bolivarian Axis is falling apart and has no prospects of ever succeeding beyond noisy and ineffective anti-American moves that, in the long run, will only hurt the people he is purporting to assist.   What better way to distract people than to raise suspicions that they may be entertaining nuclear research and cooperation with the Russians?

As crude oil prices decrease, the nuclear rhetoric is likely to increase.  He understands that every time he just mentions the word “nuclear” in any speech it is sure to generate headlines.  Brasilian and Argentenian leaders, Chavez allies, should talk with their colleague and advise against such antics.  It is one thing to call President George Bush names or use expletives in speeches when talking about the U.S., it is quite another use nuclear cooperation with the Russian as a political tool.  We can ignore the insults, but not the latter.

With the exception of Communist Cuba, Hugo Chavez is the most destabilizing leader in Latin America.  He has taken advantage of high crude oil prices to fund leftists political parties throughout Latin America.  He has disrupted political process in Ecuador, Bolivia, and some say, now, Nicaragua and other Central American countries.  Chavez has supported the largest terrorist organization in South America, the FARC, and, in the process, sought to destabilize Colombia – a staunch ally of the United States.  He is fueling a mini-arms race in South America with plenty of Russian and Chinese backing.

More importantly, Venezuelan democracy and its institutions are in shambles.  Rule of law suffering, some say non-existent in some sectors.  Venezuela is not a country ready to accept the responsiblities that come with operating a civilian nuclear program.  They have broken their word, in act and deed, about its designs in the Americas.  How can we trust that they will use nuclear technology for civilian purposes only?  We cannot.  The U.S. and the regional powers need to ensure that the South American nuclear genie stays in the bottle.

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