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Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Hugo Problem

Hugo Chavez is trying to do away with presidential term limits. He is restricting freedom of the press and is friends with Fidel Castro and has close ties with Iran. He is building a Kalashnikov rifle factory in Venezuela.

All of these may be true about the controversial leader, but it seems that increasingly there is a perception within the US that he also poses a security threat to the United States and that average Americans should be afraid of him.

Chavez inspires polarized views. He is alternatively a despot, intent on attacking the US and threatening democracy throughout Latin America, and a heroic populist, bravely standing up to US hegemony.

But should we be afraid of him?

The fact that he is buying Kalashnikovs and building a rifle factory has rattled our government, but that particular rifle can fire about 330 feet. The closest American mainland between the shores of Venezuela and the US is about 1300 miles. Venezuela has no nuclear weapons or other weapons capable of reaching us. Most likely, he is not planning on marching up through Central America to invade Texas. Unless, as Chavez claims, the US plans to invade Venezuela, we have nothing to worry about from the Kalashnikovs.

But rifles aren’t the only thing our administration seems to be worried about. Venezuela also dropped out of participation in the World Bank and IMF after repaying all its loans early and has worked to establish the Bank of the South as a regional World Bank alternative. Chavez established ALBA, a trade agreement proposed as an alternative to the US’s FTAA. As part of it, Venezuela plans to supply 100 percent of the energy needs for ALBA member-nations, which include Haiti, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Haiti and Cuba. It’s a wildly generous offer, but he can afford to be. Not counting the Middle East, Venezuela has more proven oil reserves than any nation on earth except Canada. Chavez has also supplied oil to fund reduced-price oil programs for the poor in the United States, including Joe Kennedy’s Citizens Energy Corporation. Many New Englanders have had heat on cold winter nights, thanks to cheap Venezuelan oil, a la Chavez.

The US government’s fretting over Venezuela’s initiating the Bank of the South and the ALBA free trade agreement is simply a fear that Latin America will no longer turn to the United States for everything — from borrowing money with strings attached to being told what the price of corn will be that day.

Hugo Chavez may indeed be power-hungry and intent on ruling Venezuela to the end of his days. He may, like many with great power, turn corrupt and brutal and become the dictator he is already accused of being. Some fear he may become another Fidel Castro. We fail to remember that in the more than 40 years that Castro has been in power, Cuba has been a peaceful nation and has never once attacked us, even though they are only 90 miles away from our shores (but still out of Kalashnikov range). Only we have attacked them. Castro has governed over a poor populace that manages to feed and educate and provide medical care to all of its people; Chavez could do worse than follow in his footsteps.

Today, Chavez is a popular, democratically elected leader of a sovereign nation that has never in its history invaded, attacked, or otherwise hurt the United States. Chavez’s greatest crime is simply that he has the nerve to try to control his nation’s own wealth, its oil, and refuses to play by the rules the US has established for Latin America over the last 150 years. If that’s what our administration is afraid of, the self-determination of another democratic nation, we probably have bigger things to worry about, right here at home.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Green Pork

In the last days before the Congressional break, the Republican outcry was, “Green pork!” It wasn’t a long-lost Dr. Seuss sequel to Green Eggs and Ham, it’s how Republicans are describing a new energy bill passed by the House. Green for environmental and pork for excessive political spending.

It seems the Democrat-controlled House had the nerve to eliminate $16 billion in tax breaks for the oil industry. That’s pork? This is an industry in which a single company, Exxon Mobil, posted an annual profit of $39.6 billion. As Oppenheimer & Co. oil analyst Fadel Gheit says, “They have so much profit, it’s almost an embarrassment of riches. They don’t know what to do with it.” Sounds like they can afford to do without the tax breaks.

Not only that, but part of the Republican argument is that if we take away oil companies’ tax breaks, they won’t have the money for new exploration. However, one of the reasons their profit has been so high is that they no longer reinvest as much in new exploration. Other than buying into foreign oil companies, they’re simply running out of places to look for oil domestically. So, instead, they have massive amounts of cash they don’t know what to do with, and no debt.

But that’s not how the Republicans see it: “There's a war going on against energy from fossil fuels," says Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas. "I can't understand the pure venom felt against the oil and gas industry." I can’t understand why Rep. Hall doesn’t understand what’s wrong with fossil fuels. First, we’re running out of them; second, they pollute the environment and contribute to global warming; and third, the oil companies are making enough money all by themselves ― throwing them more billions isn’t going to result in any solution to our energy crisis. Mr. Hall is trying to portray this as a vendetta against oil companies by implying that insanely rich companies like Exxon Mobil are victims. Congress is not the Grinch stealing the last crumb in Exxon Mobil’s house.

$16 billion certainly could help in the development of alternative fuels, which is exactly what this bill proposes. Additionally, the bill provides funds to increase efficiency of appliances and buildings. All good ideas.

However, according to the White House, the President may veto the bill because it makes “no serious attempts to increase our energy security or address high energy costs.” The White House and Republican leadership seem to think that the only “real” energy is fossil fuel energy. It seems renewable energy just doesn’t count. How can our energy security not eventually increase if our energy were increasingly coming from domestic renewable sources? No more ripping through the Arctic, tearing up everything in site to hunt for the last little drop of oil. Turn on the windmill or open up the solar panels and just let the energy flow. And how is investing in renewable energy not addressing energy costs? The more renewable energy we create, the less oil and coal we use, the less demand, the lower the cost.

We’ve been investing in fossil fuels for decades now, and it has given us an unstable Middle East, oil coated beaches, dirty air, and hotter climates. Why not, just this once, try something different? Believe in the power of American innovation and resourcefulness to come up with new forms of energy. Believe in it by investing in it. The creature in Green Eggs and Ham was reluctant to try anything new, and then, at the very end, he tried the colorful dish and loved it. “I do so like green eggs and ham!

Thank you! Thank you, Sam-I-am!”