CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez strengthened his Latin American ties with generous oil deals that he is now extending north to the United States, with plans to ship cheap heating oil to low-income people in New York and Massachusetts.
Venezuela’s Citgo Petroleum Corp. made a symbolic first delivery to a Boston-area family this week. Shipments are due to reach tens of thousands families starting next month, and hospitals, homeless shelters and other facilities in needy communities also are in line to get oil.
Chavez’s critics call it a political stunt aimed at needling
President Bush, a constant target of taunts from the leftist leader. Others say Chavez is likely to win praise from some Americans with a clever approach that bypasses Washington to make his point.
“How are you going to retaliate for keeping people warm for winter?” said Larry Birns, director of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs. “It’s a pretty brilliant strategy.”
Linda Kelly of Quincy, Mass., said she feels grateful to Chavez for the fuel that her family of five received this week at a 40 percent discount.
“He’s doing the right thing,” Kelly, 44, said in a phone interview Wednesday. “The people of Venezuela are lucky to have him. That’s what government is supposed to be about — taking care of the little guy.”
Awash in oil profits, Chavez says he is leading a socialist “revolution” and calls his program an act of justice for poor Americans, whom he says have been neglected by their government.
He has called Bush a “madman” and said Venezuela must be prepared to repel a U.S. attack if necessary. Washington denies such plans but has accused Chavez of endangering Venezuelan democracy and destabilizing the region.
Despite the political tensions, the United States remains the top buyer of oil from Venezuela, the world’s No. 5 exporter. Citgo has 13,500 independently owned gas stations in the United States.
Chavez has been selling fuel on preferential terms to countries across Latin America and the Caribbean, extending low-interest loans and accepting partial payment in goods ranging from bananas to sugar.
Venezuela sent extra, market-price oil shipments to the United States after Hurricane Katrina to help areas where Chavez accused Bush of not doing enough for survivors.
Some analysts warn Chavez’s promises could leave him overextended when high oil prices decline. Other critics say his aid for low-income Americans is misplaced because poverty in Venezuela is more serious despite Chavez’s many social programs.
The 12 million gallons of fuel earmarked for Massachusetts will be distributed by two nonprofit groups and reach an expected 40,000 families, who could save a total of between $10 million and $14 million.
Venezuelan heating oil also is headed to New York City’s Bronx borough, and Chavez has said he hopes to extend the project to other U.S. cities.
Patrick Esteruelas, an analyst with the New York-based think tank Eurasia Group, said the discount sales are a way for Venezuela to “compromise the White House position within the U.S.” and amplify Chavez’s voice.
A close ally of
Fidel Castro, Chavez proposed offering fuel to poor U.S. communities during an August visit to Cuba in August. He found allies in some congressional Democrats and the Rev.
“Chavez is spreading his influence by a good use of energy to people who need it,” Jackson said in a phone interview from Las Vegas. “So long as spreading influence achieves a noble purpose of relieving poverty and misery, it’s a good thing.”
U.S. Rep. William Delahunt (news, bio, voting record), D-Mass., discussed the discount oil sales over a dinner with Chavez in August and has called for U.S. oil companies to follow Citgo’s lead.