Oil dependency: Venezuala's experience has world ramifications

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

In American folklore, discovering oil under one's feet has long been considered one of the surest ways to material prosperity and everlasting happiness (think John D. Rockefeller, Jed Clampett and black gold). For individual owners of oil-rich property, that may be true. Somehow, though, when the age-old geothermal lottery has deposited huge reservoirs of oil beneath an entire country, the effects are much more sinister for the nation above.

Reflecting on political events in his country recently, a Venezuelan author bitterly proclaimed oil to be "the devil's excrement." And this is from a citizen of the world's fifth-leading exporter of petroleum, whose country was modernized through oil and was a cofounder of OPEC. Even today, the Venezuelan federal government gets half of its operating revenue and over 80 percent of its export earnings from oil. Thus, one might wonder why ordinary Venezuelans curse the fact that their country has oil, as many have done in conversations with me.

For a complete picture, one must consider recent political events here in Venezuela. Ever since oil prices began their steady rise, President Hugo Chavez has systematically tightened his grip on all branches of government, making a mockery of fundamental notions of democracy like checks and balances, accountability and the separation of powers. He and his supporters have expanded and packed the Supreme Court with Chavistas, put ominous limits on freedoms of speech and the press and prosecuted and harassed opposition leaders for political reasons.

Further, the government is worrying neighbors and the United States alike with large military purchases from Russia, Brazil and Spain (including 100,000 AK-47s), increasingly hostile rhetoric and relations with the United States (including the recent comment -- now retracted -- from a government official that Venezuelans need to learn to "hate gringos"), and plans for a 1.5 million-man military reserve.

Though there has been some outcry from Venezuelans concerning the political repression, soaring oil prices has given the Chavistas the resources necessary to buy off or repress most serious threats to power. For those who care about democracy and human rights, the situation is extremely troubling.

Unfortunately, this contentious relationship between oil and democracy can be seen all over the world. Although not mutually exclusive, the two do not seem to coexist well. The list of the top oil-exporting countries reads like a rap sheet of the most despotic, corrupt and oppressive governments in the world: Saudi Arabia, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Nigeria, Algeria and Libya. Only two true democracies are on the list: Norway and Mexico. And the last two countries -- Venezuela and Russia -- have both fallen back towards authoritarianism just as the price of oil has gone in the other direction.

There is a literal grab bag of reasons why the United States ought to do whatever it takes to wean itself from foreign oil, appealing to everyone along the political spectrum.

Some of the reasons are old (it would do our part to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which would both help avoid catastrophic climate change and improve relations with our European allies, who are furious that we backed out of the Kyoto treaty), while some are fairly new (it would reduce the possibility of a conflict with China for scarce oil resources, reduce the need for a large military presence in the Middle East and -- with the challenge of developing alternate energy sources -- inspire a whole new generation of scientists and engineers -- both sorely lacking in American universities).

But the newest reason -- and it's gaining momentum -- is that decreasing our dependency on foreign oil would deflate the economic base of some of the worst governments in the world. No longer able to rely on oil revenues, these governments would be forced to concede more economic and political rights, which would do more to democratize the Middle East, at a far lower cost, than any number of invasions.

Oil dependency has coerced us into subverting our most sacred values: independence, self-sufficiency and -- most importantly -- respect for the liberty of our fellow human beings. Our unquenchable thirst for petroleum has lead us to support leaders and regimes so antithetical to American values that it has cost us our credibility as a moral arbiter, cast the United States as the world's leading hypocrite and caused a serious condition of collective cognitive dissonance. No matter your political stripes, we all ought to recognize energy independence as the single most important issue facing America today.

But energy independence will not come easily. All Americans must acquiesce to painful concessions, and powerful political lobbies representing particular interests must be overcome.

We are letting our dependence on oil dictate the sacrifices we make, which have involved everything from high gasoline prices and a soaring national debt to dead and maimed American soldiers in Iraq and a loss of international credibility.

Far better, I believe, would be to proactively take control of the situation, choose what sacrifices we are willing to endure -- such as high gasoline taxes to fund research, restrictions on environmentally irresponsible SUVs and the reconsideration of nuclear power -- and do our part to make the world a safer, healthier and more democratic place.

Justin Cox, a graduate of Scott City High School and Washington University, is working at the U.S. Embassy in Caracas,Venezuela.

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