A long-time Syrian ally, Chavez has made several attempts to prop up the embattled Assad by sending ships loaded with fuel to the Syrian port of Baniyas. The New York Times has reported the ship, named the Negra Hipolita, which is owned by the Venezuelan state oil company, has made its second trip to Syria since December, according to John H. Paskin, the chief executive of Commodity Flow, a company based in London that compiles satellite data and other information to track the movement of ships.
Carrying various fuels, it has been reported that the ship left a Venezuelan refinery complex at Puerto La Cruz on January 25th and arrived at the Syrian port on February 15th. The ship is named after a slave who was a wet nurse and nanny to Simón Bolívar, the Venezuelan national hero, whom Mr. Chávez idolizes.
Defying international efforts to isolate Assad and pressure him to relinquish the reins of power in the beleaguered country, Chavez remains in the maelstrom of political polemics, as he has warmly embraced Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and even hosted him in Venezuela in January. During the state visit, Chavez upbraided the United States, ridiculing Western assertions that Iran was seeking to produce nuclear weapons. In late 2010 and early 2011, Chavez also sent a gasoline blending component to Iran, which drew rebuke from the United States.
Seeking re-election as Venezuela’s president, Chavez is in the midst of a personal battle with cancer and pundits say this could eclipse his already difficult political campaign. While Chavez’s minions may applaud such provocative political posturing as the oil shipments to Syria, pundits say that this “oil tanker diplomacy” may prove to be a liability amongst voters.
Some of the world’s largest oil reserves can be found in Venezuela and as such, Chávez has exploited the high price of oil, using its revenues to finance social programs at home and to aggressively promote his international interests. He has revitalized the fledgling Cuban economy through shipments of oil in exchange for doctors to staff Venezuelan clinics and for other aid, and has garnered loans and investments from China as they have become a major buyer of Venezuelan oil.
Through his concrete support of totalitarian regimes in the Middle East, Chavez has portrayed their governments as victims of imperialist aggression. His message is buttressed by the Venezuelan state media, who prominently broadcast this hypothesis on a continual basis for the consumption of the masses. Thus, Chavez has created an image of himself as the moral underdog fighting the heavy handed policies of the United States.
In a recent exchange with reporters at the presidential palace, Chavez was asked about the oil shipments and whether the fuel that was delivered could be used by Syria’s military. Chavez answered by immediately taking aim at the United States, Venezuela’s largest oil customer. “Have we by any chance asked the United States what it does with the fuel we sell to the United States? Have we by any chance allowed anyone to impose conditions on our sale of petroleum to the United States?” He said that the answer was no and added, “We are a free country.” William A. Ostick, a State Department spokesman, said that American or European sanctions did not prohibit shipments of fuel to Syria and added that, “We continue to work with the friends of the Syrian people to increase pressure on the Assad regime to get him to step down.”