As gas prices escalate worldwide, OPEC member nations are standing up against renewed Western pressure to lower the price of crude. Here at the OPEC summit in late September, the oil producing countries blamed high prices on taxes, middlemen and bottlenecks. But they did not say that changes within OPEC itself are also beginning to have an impact on the market.

Spearheading these changes is Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, whose outspoken positions have reshaped OPEC policy and thrust Venezuela into a leadership role within the organization. Since Chávez took office in February 1999, Venezuela has gone from being OPEC's most notorious violator of assigned quotas to its most disciplined member, inspiring other oil exporters to follow suit.

Chávez's initiative in calling the summit, his promotion of the "band system" (in which crude oil prices are allowed to oscillate between $22 and $28 per barrel) and his insistence on including the problem of the foreign debt in the meeting's closing document have transformed him into a Third-World paladin. The Parisian daily Le Monde wrote that the Venezuelan leader has gone from being an advocate of "a peaceful revolution against his nation's oligarchy and corrupt political class to the main spokesman for an offensive--this time at the planetary level--against savage globalization."

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