SAO PAULO - Move over
the "axis of evil". The time is ripe for the "axis
of gas". Meet the Gran Gasoduto del Sur (the Great
Gas Pipeline of the South) - the South American
entry into Pipelineistan, soon to join networks
from Siberia to both Europe and Asia as well as
the American-inspired Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan
pipeline. In terms of political will applied by
the new axis of Caracas, Brasilia and Buenos
Aires, the pipeline is already a done deal.
At a recent summit meeting at a Sao Paulo
hotel, presidents Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Luiz
Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil and Nestor Kirchner
of Argentina further progressed to consolidate the
giant gas pipeline
following "strategic lines of cooperation,
integration and South American unity", in the
of Chavez. All
remaining South American presidents would be
presented in August with definitive viability
studies as well as alternatives for financing, he
The pipeline - with a daily
capacity of 150 billion cubic meters - will snake
from Puerto Ordaz in eastern Venezuela to Buenos
Aires in Argentina. The main trunk line is
estimated to be 6,603 kilometers - and the total
length may peak at 9,283 km. The estimated cost is
a staggering US$23 billion. The first phase - to
Manaus, in the Amazon rain forest - would be ready
by 2010. The last phase of the project would be
finished by 2017.
Chavez is more than
aware that "a global energy crisis is approaching.
We in South America, what are we going to do? We
can't have nuclear power, otherwise they [the US]
will bomb us."
He praised Brazil's
biodiesel - green fuel - efforts. But the best
answer for now, in his view, is gas; the formation
of a South American energy grid - much as Iran,
India and China are working for the emergence of
an Asian energy grid. "Our energy equilibrium is
here. We're not going to be vulnerable any more."
For the controversial Venezuelan
president, the project is more than a pipeline; it
means "hope for many people" as it also targets
the key objective of "the fight against poverty
and exclusion". The project could possibly
generate more than 1 million jobs.
bills ambitious projects such as the mega pipeline
as "the only way towards our independence". It's
the same approach regarding the bilingual,
pan-South American TV network Telesur (financed by
the governments of Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay
and Cuba); the proposed Petrosur (a pan-South
American oil company); and the proposed common
South American Bank, evidently divorced from
International Monetary Fund/World Bank policies
enshrined by the dreaded "Washington consensus".
He's confident "there will be a flood" of
investment in the pipeline, private and
Iran Chavez's stormy relationship with the
Bush administration is obvious in much of what he
says. For instance, he "never had any doubt" about
the Iranian leadership's assurances they only have
a civilian nuclear program, he said.
US and Europe, they both have nuclear plants," he
said. "Brazil does too. Why cannot Iran or any
other country? The American government was
searching for an excuse, and is now preparing the
ground for an intervention. [Venezuela] is in
favor of a dialogue of civilizations."
Chavez's take is corroborated by recent
revelations by General Lawrence Wilkerson, former
chief of staff of former secretary of state Colin
Powell. In May 2003, just after President George W
Bush had pronounced "mission accomplished" in
Iraq, the Iranian leadership asked the Swiss
ambassador to Tehran to convey to Washington a
request for talks.
Tehran would answer all
American questions on its nuclear program; then
sanctions could be lifted and normal relations
established. According to Wilkerson, his boss was
in favor. But Vice President Dick Cheney wasn't.
Cheney and the neo-conservatives, said Wilkerson,
then forced the State Department to ignore the
Swiss ambassador and the Iranian request, and
started to build up the demonization of Iran.
Meanwhile, Chavez said, Venezuela was at
the heart of the South American mega pipeline from
the beginning. "Then came Lula [da Silva]. We
started to talk about it, and started to exchange
information with Petrobras [the Brazilian oil and
gas giant]. We wanted a strategic project of
exploration. Not even we Venezuelans knew about
Officially, Venezuela holds
gas reserves of 151 trillion cubic feet (compared
to the US's 189 trillion cubic feet); that means
almost 50% of the reserves of the whole continent,
80% of South America's reserves and, the president
stressed, "5% of the reserves of the whole world".
The gas will be sold in South America
"very cheaply", as Chavez confirms that Petroleos
de Venezuela, SA or PDVSA, the Venezuelan oil and
gas giant, is part of the pipeline project. "If
Venezuela was only moved by an economic-financial
interest, I wouldn't be here; I would be in
Washington," he said.
He delights in
quoting Venezuela's oil reserves - "313 billion
barrels" - adding that the days when the country
"was an American oil colony" are over. Venezuela,
he said, was "currently producing 3 billion cubic
feet of gas a day". But it is not exporting
anything, at least not yet. "The first exports
will be to South America," then to friendly
countries like China and India.
a preferential client of Venezuela's oil, and the
same would apply for gas, he said. "We are going
to build a network going to Colombia, Equator and
Chile, and a commission will inform Chile,
Uruguay, Paraguay, Peru, Surinam and even France,"
he said. "The project will be sustainable till the
end of this century."
The gas may be even
sold in the end to the US, but for a much higher
price, Chavez said. "[This] does not mean that we
have a conflict with the American people. Our
conflict is with "El Jefe [the boss, a reference
to Bush] who wants to take over the riches of all
The pipeline project is
gaining ground amid a complex political context in
South America pitting two opposing trade and
integration models. Venezuela has just entered
Mercosur, the South American trade bloc led by
Brazil and Argentina; technical discussions take
place next month before full incorporation. This
move implied Venezuela's exit from the Andean
Community of Nations, another trade bloc including
Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru.
the failure of the American-led Free Trade Area of
the Americas (FTAA) summit in Mar del Plata,
Argentina, "the US started to strike mini-FTAAs in
Central America or the Caribbean", Chavez
explained. As far as he's concerned, an Andean
community does not exist. He sees Venezuela's exit
"as a divorce. The two [Mercosur and the Andean
Community] are incompatible. If a country in the
Mercosur strikes a free trade agreement with the
US, it has to leave. They are like water and oil."
In the end, the pipeline reveals itself in
Chavez's mind to be just one among myriad
development projects - not only for Venezuela but
for the whole of Latin America.