Hugo Chavez: Candidate for the New Willie Horton ?

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Well, as far as we know, this year's Bush campaign hasn't yet found its Willie Horton, but Hugo Chavez seems to be begging for the role. Last week the Venezuelan president was getting up Washington's nose by becoming the first foreign head of state to end Saddam Hussein's post-Gulf War quarantine; now he's talking up oil prices to record levels. That's right, talking up, in the same way that Alan Greenspan does for equity markets. Crude oil prices hit a 10-year high of $32.28 a barrel Tuesday, following Chavez's comments, during a visit to Nigeria, that oil-producing nations should not allow prices to fall below current levels.

Chavez may be a left-wing populist who takes Libya's Muammar Ghaddafi as a role model for his vision of an oil-financed social revolution, but his country is also one of the United States' leading oil suppliers. And the weight of his opinions is amplified by the fact that he's the current chair of OPEC and is looking to beef up the cartel's ability to keep prices high by restricting supplies. That, of course, puts him on a collision course with Washington, which recently leaned on Arab allies such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to open OPEC's spigots to ease U.S. gasoline prices, which had climbed past $2 a gallon. While the Saudis and others more directly dependent on U.S. military support may be more receptive to pressure from Washington, Castro pal Chavez wants the additional revenue of higher oil prices to finance his domestic social programs, and he's inviting OPEC heads of state to Caracas next month for their first meeting in 25 years to firm up their unity. After all, the cartel is effective only as long as all its members avoid the temptation to cheat on their production quotas by pumping extra barrels. In the process, Chavez is making no secret of his confrontational attitude to Washington's interventions — on Tuesday he urged OPEC members to resist outside pressure to lower prices.

Chavez's apparent ability Tuesday to have raised the oil price through his rhetoric will have given him an unfortunate taste of power, but it could be misleading. After all, there's little reason to believe the former paratrooper who spent time in jail after leading a failed military coup can succeed where others have failed in enforcing OPEC discipline. But whether or not he can deliver on his threats is a moot point: If oilmen Cheney and Bush are looking for a foreign bogey man with which to scare American voters, right now Chavez is writing himself the part.