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A new reason for U.S. to worry: friendship of Castro, Hussein and Chavez

The improbable but fast-growing friendship of three career military revolutionaries _ Fidel Castro of Cuba, Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela _ poses an urgent challenge to U.S. interests worldwide and to President-elect George W. Bush. It is a friendship with considerable power: Venezuela and Iraq are among the top 10 oil exporters in the world, and Cuba is a beneficiary of their largess and, in Venezuela's case, a mentor of revolution.

Meanwhile, United Nations economic sanctions against Iraq, imposed after the Persian Gulf War nearly 10 years ago, and the four-decade-long U.S. economic embargo against Cuba, following the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, are crumbling. Allies and U.S. businesses are increasingly violating or ignoring both embargoes, and there is virtually nothing Washington seems able to do about it. Earlier this month, the U.N. Security Council overrode U.S. objections and released $525-million from its Iraqi oil fund for use in upgrading Hussein's oil industry.

Quintessentially, the Castro-Hussein-Chavez connection is anti-American and anti-capitalistic but not in an ideological way. What matters to the three is domestic power built upon a base of nationalism that they believe legitimizes their policies.

In a way, this bizarre trio also represents the rebirth, a half century later, of the kind of nationalist populism spawned by Gen. Juan Peron in Argentina and Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt. Castro and Hussein gained power through armed revolutions; Chavez, a paratroopers' lieutenant colonel, was democratically elected in 1998, after serving time for trying to overthrow the government in 1992.

Chavez is unquestionably the most intriguing new leader to emerge in Latin America since Castro _ and he is the linchpin between Castro and Hussein. Although Cuba had been sending doctors and health workers to Iraq for years, there had not been any major contacts between the two countries until Chavez appeared on the scene. This fall, Chavez became the first democratically elected foreign head of state to visit Iraq since the Gulf War, ostensibly to invite Hussein to a summit of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. But it also was an unmistakable in-your-face gesture toward the United States. Coincidentally or not, Chavez's helicopter trek to Baghdad from the Iraqi border was followed by increasing numbers of commercial flights from France, Russia, Jordan and much of the Middle East.

With France and Russia, two of the five veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council, determined to see the sanctions against Iraq ended, the United States can do little to prevent them from withering away. Hussein has no intention of allowing U.N. weapons inspectors back into his country, and he knows that renewed bombing of Iraq is out of the question. Confident that the United States and the British would not risk shooting down a civilian airliner in the southern or northern "no-fly" zone, Hussein has resumed regular domestic commercial flights for the first time in a decade.

Iraq has the world's second-largest reserves of oil (after Saudi Arabia), which it exports legally under U.N. controls and smuggles out on a huge scale. Hussein is not short of cash for whatever adventure next occurs to him, and in concert with Chavez, he can influence the international oil supply and its prices.

As for Venezuela, a main source of U.S. imported oil, Chavez has been raising his profile within OPEC, having presided in Caracas in late September over the second-ever summit of that organization's heads of state and governments. A Venezuelan is currently chairman of OPEC. Late in November, Hussein demonstrated on two occasions what he can do to the oil market when he briefly threatened to halt the pumping and shipping of oil, a move Chavez knew about beforehand.

The Iraqi link is one aspect of Chavez's international involvements that the United States must not underestimate, with Cuba playing a central role. Since he took office in February 1999, Chavez has proclaimed his "identification" with the Cuban revolution. He visited Havana and entertained Castro in Caracas for five days last October. Castro treated Chavez as a son, an attitude seldom displayed by the Cuban leader toward any young people. During that same visit, Chavez granted Cuba large crude-oil price discounts, as he has done selectively elsewhere in the Caribbean, and agreed to help complete building a Cuban oil refinery.

Castro is Chavez's guide in the art of gently and gradually introducing authoritarian government to Venezuela. Chavez abolished the Senate and established a unicameral parliament whose members support him. He has a new constitution, approved by a simple majority of voters in a referendum, that grants him considerable power.

To complicate matters and his relations with the United States, Chavez has been openly supporting leftist guerrilla movements in neighboring Colombia. The rebels control big swaths of Colombian territory, along with numerous coca plantations. Last month, Chavez invited two Colombian rebel leaders, including the daughter of the chief of the principal guerrilla movement, to address the "Latin American Parliament" held in the national legislative chamber. Washington has already committed $1.3-billion, mainly in military aid, to the eradication of both guerrillas and coca plantations.

This could foreshadow a big U.S. commitment in Colombia and an eventual conflict with Chavez that may interfere with the flow of oil north from Venezuela.

Tad Szulc visited Iraq and the rest of the Middle East earlier this year. He is the author, among other books, of a biography of Fidel Castro.

Special to the Los Angeles Times