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Hugo Chávez: Ethical Oil’s Accidental Salesman, Part 1

This post is the first in a two-part series. For Part 2, click here.

In death as in life, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez has provoked more than his fair share of criticism and commentary in Canada. When the elected socialist leader died on March 5th after a two-year struggle with cancer, Canadians were quick to offer their condolences—with varying degrees of tact.

Former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien reminisced about Chávez’s fondness for baseball, and noted his frank willingness to criticize the United States. NDP member of Parliament Paul Dewar extended his sympathies to the Chávez family and affirmed the ongoing relationship between Canada and Venezuela.

At the current Prime Minister’s Office, Stephen Harper painted Chávez’s death as an opportunity for the people of Venezuela to “build for themselves a better, brighter future based on the principles of freedom, democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights.” This statement drew a formal complaint from the Venezuelan government, criticizing Harper for making “insensitive and impertinent statements” while the country grieves. 

Harper had long considered Chávez to be an ideological opponent and an obstacle to progress in the Western Hemisphere, feelings he made clear in a 2009 Postmedia News interview before the Summit of the Americas. During the interview, Harper described Chávez as the leader of “an authoritarian state run on petro dollars” who was “opposed to basically sound economic policies.”

In less enlightened quarters of Canadian politics, responses to the Venezuelan President’s death were not nearly so measured. From Sun Media’s charming correspondent Ezra Levant, Chávez earned himself three words: “burn in hell.” 

Why does the death of Chávez mark the beginning of a new, brighter era in the mind of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and the start of an eternity of torment according to Ezra Levant? The answer might have something to do with oil.

Venezuela is a petro-state that sits on the largest known oil reserves in the world: 17.9 percent, compared to Saudi Arabia’s 16.1 percent and Canada’s 11 percent. But despite the country’s vast reserves, current production sits at only 3.5 percent of global output. Low production rates and limited exploration of new fields have been attributed to the mismanagement of Venezuela’s national oil company, PDVSA.

Immediately following Chávez’s death, speculation began about the prospects for international investors seeking to reenter Venezuela’s nationalized energy sector—a development that could mean increased competition for producers in Alberta’s tar sands.

But for proponents of the tar sands, Venezuela is more than just competition; it’s a key selling point for Canadian oil. As the now-familiar refrain of the Ethical Oil Institute goes, Canada’s oil is ethical, while the oil produced in countries like Venezuela is ethically-compromised conflict oil. The worse Chávez looks, the better the Canadian alternative.

Ethical oil is a made-in-Canada campaign developed to distract the attention of Canadians away from the tar sands by pointing fingers abroad. But as the planned pipeline shipment of Alberta bitumen to refineries in the United States becomes increasingly contentious south of the border, the campaign is finding new life as a popular export product. Gary Doer, Canada’s Ambassador to the US, recently rolled out the ethical oil talking points to help galvanize support for the Keystone XL pipeline in the United States.

For Doer, the choice is a clear one: either we support the heinous Hugo Chávez or Alberta Premier Alison Redford. The demonization of Hugo Chávez has long been a feature of the ethical oil sales campaign, reinforced in no small measure by the international media. With Chávez gone and the future of Venezuela uncertain, it’s worth taking a closer look at his legacy to see if the former president deserves to live on as an accidental salesman for Canadian oil. 

Image Credit: que comunismo via flickr.

David Ravensbergen’s writing has appeared in Discorder, The Tyee, the Montreal Review of Books and the Montreal Mirror. Originally from…

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