Don't allow Chavez to ruin Venezuela

January 03, 2003|By Douglas MacKinnon

WASHINGTON - My purgatory on Earth is being a Boston Red Sox fan. The fuel that provides the fire to my personal toaster oven? The Baltimore Orioles or either one of New York's Major League teams. To this day, if I see more than 20 seconds of the 1986 World Series, I have all the symptoms of a major anxiety attack.

So clearly, what I don't need is another visual image associated with the Red Sox that will cause me to have palpitations. Of all people, Hugo Chavez - the madman who is running Venezuela into the ground - has provided just such an image.

For the last seven years, I have been married to a wonderful and accomplished woman from Caracas, Venezuela. I've been to the country several times, done business with its people and grown to love almost everything about the country.

That said, for over the last year, I've been like a modern version of Paul Revere running around telling U.S. government officials and media contacts that, "Hugo is coming! Hugo is coming!" And wherever this dictator in all but name goes, he leaves behind a path of destruction, despair, anger and hopelessness.

For the last year, while most of our government's attention has understandably been on terrorism, Afghanistan, the Middle East and Iraq, Mr. Chavez and his thugs have systematically crippled a nation that is of huge importance to the United States - both because of oil and gasoline imports and for national security concerns. On any day, Venezuela is the No. 1 to No. 4 supplier of oil and gasoline to the United States, and yet, for the past couple of years, we have paid scant attention while Mr. Chavez has aligned himself with Iraq, Libya and Cuba and all but broken the spine of his people.

Now, with nearly 80 percent of the people of Venezuela in all but total revolt against Mr. Chavez and his failed policies, the United States and the rest of the world have realized they, too, have a problem. Has that realization come too late to stop the impending implosion of a once-great nation?

My wife and I recently met with two members of the Venezuelan opposition who were in Washington to meet with the Organization of American States. They made two points.

First, it is critical that the United States take a more vocal role in calling for early elections. They understand the United States is gun-shy about being seen as inserting itself into the constitutional matters of Venezuela because of perceived cheerleading against Mr. Chavez during the "accidental coup" of April 11. But they believe that, for the sake of their people, the United States must get involved.

Second, they complained about the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, Charles Shapiro, a career foreign service officer. They believe he is weak, is in over his head and is seen by Venezuelans as someone who tries to placate Mr. Chavez whenever possible. It is their hope and belief that, when the dust settles, the Bush administration will appoint a "political" ambassador who will have more direct access to the president and who will understand and appreciate the vital link between Venezuela and the United States.

What does all this have to do with the Red Sox? Because Citgo is one of the largest franchisers of oil products in the United States, and, in a very real sense, Mr. Chavez owns it.

Citgo is a wholly owned subsidiary of Petroleos de Venezuela, S.A., the national oil company of Venezuela. While many of PDVSA's workers are courageously on strike against Mr. Chavez, he still ultimately controls the spigot and, therefore, could control some of our fate.

For more than four decades, the most important landmark associated with Fenway Park (the home of the Red Sox), is the giant, flashing neon Citgo sign that looms beyond the "Green Monster" in Kenmore Square. For my entire life, that Citgo sign has stood as a symbol of baseball, the Splendid Splinter and eternal hope.

Today, at least for me, it stands as a solemn reminder that a madman rules my second country and that the worst may be yet to come. The sooner Mr. Chavez goes, the sooner I can enjoy my Red Sox and prepare for the Orioles, Yankees or Mets to break my heart.

Douglas MacKinnon is a former White House and Pentagon official and a novelist.

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