Red-clad oil workers rallied in Venezuela on Wednesday to denounce “imperialist” US sanctions over the country’s ties to Iran, but the rising anger seemed unlikely to sink the OPEC member’s huge oil trade with the US.
Officials from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez down criticized the move against state oil company PDVSA, announced by the US government on Tuesday as punishment for shipments to Iran of an oil blending component worth US$50 million.
“President Chavez has already said it: ‘imperialists, go to hell, your sanctions mean nothing to us,’” yelled Venezuelan Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez at a rally in the sprawling Jose oil complex, from where many tankers leave for the US.
“Comandante Chavez will indicate the adequate reply to the imperialism,” Ramirez said. “We have the right to respond to the US aggression in a proportional manner.”
Ramirez likened the sanctions to US pressure on Iran over its nuclear policy and the NATO airstrikes to topple Libyan leader Muammar -Qaddafi. He said PDVSA was still deciding whether the measures would result in interruptions to oil supplies for some US companies.
Beyond the rhetoric, however, pragmatism will probably prevail on both sides, analysts said.
US President Barack Obama’s government wanted to send a firm signal to Venezuela, while avoiding further upset to oil prices or a cutoff in supplies from one of its top five suppliers.
As a result, Tuesday’s sanctions bar PDVSA — but, crucially, not its US-based CITGO subsidiary — from US contracts and financing.
On the Venezuelan side, the measures gave Chavez an opportunity to berate the US for meddling with his country’s right to befriend whom it wants.
That is proving useful as Chavez seeks to burnish his nationalist image in the run-up to re-election next year. It may also help his government distract attention from domestic problems like power and other service failures.
In a sign of widespread anger at the US move, popular -opposition leader Henrique Capriles said he disagreed with the sanctions and supported PDVSA and its workers.
However, there was no way, analysts said, that Venezuela was about to cut off all commercial ties with the nation that buys about 45 percent of its crude and thus helps keep the economy afloat, especially as it emerges from an 18 month recession.
Venezuelan exports to the US rose 28 percent in the first three months of the year to US$10.3 billion, the Venezuelan-American chamber of commerce said in a statement.
Chavez has threatened to disrupt oil supplies to the US many times since he took office in 1999, but never carried out the threat.
Ramirez said Venezuela guaranteed supplies to its US subsidiaries, but would study the impact of the sanctions on its other clients.
Chavez’s alliance with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and other leaders out of favor with the US, is a source of pride for the Venezuelan in his aim to create an alternative axis of power.