OGJ Oil Diplomacy Editor
LOS ANGELES, Mar. 17 -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, using the need for drug interdiction as his reason, has ordered his country's navy to seize seaports in Venezuelan states having major petroleum-exporting installations.
Until the takeover, La Guaira, the port closest to Caracas, was the only major port managed by the central government. Already, critics have expressed concerns over the government's ability to maintain operations at them.
"It is a matter of national security," Chavez said in announcing his takeover of the ports of Maracaibo in oil-rich Zulia state and Puerto Cabello in Carabobo state. He also referred to a plan to take control of the seaport in the state of Nueva Esparta.
The decision appears to fulfill long-standing political plans by Chavez as the three areasZulia, Carabobo, and Nueva Espartaare among several that voted against him in last November's national elections.
At the time, Chavez led a personal campaign of intimidation, threatening to jail the outgoing governor of Zulia, who was running for mayor of that state's capital, and warning the voters in Carabobo that he would send in tanks if the opposition prevailed there.
The Chavez regime won 17 of the 22 governorships at stake, but the opposition won in four of the five most important races, including Zulia, Carabobo, the Miranda region around the capital city, and Caracas itself.
The victories, which also included Nueva Esparta and Tachira, adjacent to the border with Colombia, gave the opposition an institutional power base that Chavez felt he had to curb.
A sign of that emerged in February when a strike by 3,000 oil workers in the state of Zulia saw closure of four docks in the Lake Maracaibo area. The strike erupted when a group of companies in the area refused to pay the workers' salaries.
In a statement, Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA) accused the group of companies contracted to provide transportation services in the area of failing to fulfill their obligations and stated that docks on the eastern coast of the lake were operating normally again after PDVSA agreed to pay the workers.
Chavez said the takeover of the seaports was needed to bolster security after reports of cocaine trafficking on ships docking in Venezuelan ports.
The Honduran navy and US Coast Guard last week intercepted a boat sailing from Venezuela with more than three tons of cocaine on board, authorities said.
But the traffic in drugs from Venezuela is hardly new.
In 1986, when US agents in Florida found 6,600 pounds of cocaine hidden in cargo containers, the largest ever discovery up to that time, they learned that the drug had been loaded onto a Venezuelan ship at a Venezuelan port.
The decision by Chavez, who has long been concerned by alleged US plots to invade his country, follows a recent announcement by Washington to closely monitor ships entering US ports after earlier calls at Venezuela.
"The Coast Guard announces that it will impose conditions of entry on vessels arriving from the country of Venezuela," the Department of Homeland Security said on Jan. 16, adding that "ports in Venezuela are not maintaining effective antiterrorism measures" (OGJ, Jan. 26, 2009, p. 28).
The US has long claimed that Chavez provides support for the terrorist Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC).
Two days before issuing its directive concerning Venezuelan ships, the US government reiterated long-standing claims linking FARC with drug trafficking.
"The FARC is one of the world's largest suppliers of cocaine and continues to be Colombia's most notorious and vicious narco-terrorist organization," said Adam Szubin, director of the US Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control.
The US State Department branded FARC as a foreign terrorist organization in 1997, while former President George W. Bush in 2003 labeled it a major foreign narcotics trafficker.
Contact Eric Watkins at firstname.lastname@example.org.