New York Times
November 15, 2007
CARACAS, Venezuela, Nov. 14 — President Hugo Chávez warned Spain on Wednesday that he would review diplomatic and business ties with it, escalating a dispute that erupted when Spain’s king told Mr. Chávez in public to “shut up.”
Mr. Chávez, who nationalized swaths of the economy this year in a move toward Socialism, has demanded that King Juan Carlos apologize for reprimanding him and threatened to take action against Spanish investments, especially in banking.
“We do not want to hurt ties, but right now I am conducting a detailed review of the political, diplomatic and economic ties with Spain,” Mr. Chávez told local television.
“This means Spanish companies are going to have to show what their businesses are doing,” he said. “I am going to take a look and see what’s happening in those companies.”
Mr. Chávez has named Banco Santander and Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria S.A., owners of top Venezuelan banks, as possible targets, saying that Venezuela, a major oil exporter, does not need their business.
The dispute at a summit meeting over the weekend of Latin American and Iberian leaders has to some extent eclipsed debate in Venezuela over Mr. Chávez’s effort to win approval in a Dec. 2 referendum to expand his powers, partly by ending term limits.
Spain’s foreign minister said afterward that his country demanded respect from Mr. Chávez and that the president’s comments were counterproductive in easing tensions.
The comments, “especially referring to Spanish companies, do not help us find a way out of the disagreement,” said the foreign minister, Miguel Ángel Moratinos. “The Spanish government keeps stressing respect, respect. Respect for Spanish institutions, respect for Spanish firms.”
The Spanish telecommunications giant Telefónica is the biggest mobile phone operator in Venezuela, and its oil company Repsol also works in Venezuela, which has some of the largest reserves outside the Middle East. Spanish companies have invested $2.4 billion in Venezuela since Mr. Chávez took office in 1999.
This year, Mr. Chávez took over the biggest phone company in Venezuela, seized major oil assets and threatened to nationalize the whole banking sector.
At the summit meeting, King Juan Carlos said, “Why don’t you shut up?” when Mr. Chávez interrupted a speech by Spain’s leftist prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero.
Mr. Chávez said the king “blew a fuse” and displayed 500 years of Spanish arrogance.
Mr. Chávez’s hero is Simón Bolívar, who ejected Spain from South America in the 1800s.
Mr. Chávez, who called the former Spanish prime minister, José María Aznar, who is conservative, a fascist at the meeting, has courted controversy before, notably last year by calling President Bush the devil at the United Nations.
Mr. Chávez usually saves his most vitriolic diatribes for the United States, but disputes have frayed diplomatic ties with other countries.
Political analysts say Mr. Chávez relishes such fights because he uses them to fire up his support base among the majority poor at home with blunt language that plays on their misgivings of rich countries’ investments in Latin America.