BEIJING — President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela Thursday described the U.S. economy as "a sinking ship" in the final throes of capitalism but pledged that he would not cut off oil exports to the U.S. unless his nation were attacked.
Chavez, speaking moments before flying on to Russia as part of a five-nation tour, said Venezuela's sharply rising oil exports to China wouldn't cut into sales to U.S. or other markets.
Venezuela has among the largest proven oil reserves of any country, and Chavez said his country could handle a rise in exports to China from a current level of 360,000 barrels a day to a target of 1 million barrels a day by 2012 while it still meets commitments to other clients.
"This will not affect in any way our plans to provide petroleum to other countries in the world," Chavez said.
The Venezuelan leader, a former paratrooper now in his ninth year in power, picked up a sketchpad at a news conference and began to draw a graph of Venezuela's proven oil reserves — at about 80 billion barrels, the country has nearly as much as Russia and the U.S. combined.
"I said to President Hu Jintao in our meeting yesterday . . . that Venezuela's oil reserves just keep going up and up, and I showed him the math," Chavez said.
Venezuela is the fourth largest source of foreign crude oil for U.S. markets after Canada, Saudi Arabia and Mexico. Venezuela owns seven U.S. refineries, Chavez noted, and supplies gasoline to more than 10,000 gas stations in the country as well as offering discounted heating oil to lower-income U.S. consumers.
The only way Venezuela would cut oil exports to the U.S. is if it were directly attacked, he said. "Then we would have to take drastic measures," he added.
The Bush administration has described Chavez as a destabilizing element in the Western hemisphere, accusing his government of financial and organizational links with Colombia's leftist rebels. It also says Caracas has bolstered leftist governments in Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador and Nicaragua that are opposed to U.S. influence in the region.
Earlier in the day, Chavez met with Chinese entrepreneurs and told them, "The next president of the United States is going to receive a sinking ship," according to a statement from the Caracas government.
At the news conference, Chavez, sounding pleased, read sections from President Bush's address to the nation Wednesday night in which he warned that the U.S. economy could face "a long and painful recession" if Congress doesn't act quickly on a $700 billion bailout of Wall Street.
"The U.S. model of capitalism is collapsing," Chavez said.
Chavez interrupted a U.S. reporter asking a question to say, "Where do you have your savings? In dollars? Get them out of there."
He later approached the reporter to say he hopes the economic crisis in the U.S. "doesn't affect the American people, a people we love a lot." He said he has a nephew in the Los Angeles area.
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McClatchy Newspapers 2008