- The Washington Times - Friday, November 3, 2006

Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s fiery anti-American strongman, last year notched a propaganda victory with a program offering heavily discounted heating oil to poor residents in eight Northeast states. That deal, orchestrated with the help of Democratic Reps. William Delahunt of Massachusetts and Jose Serrano of New York, helped Mr. Chavez extend his largess to the United States so successfully that Venezuela plans to nearly double the program this year — adding six more states, including Virginia and Maryland, and the District of Columbia. The program is run through Citgo, a Venezuelan-owned oil company, and a nonprofit energy company founded by Joseph P. Kennedy II, and it includes Sen. Ted Kennedy among its congressional supporters.

Venezuela may be hawking the program under a banner of altruism, but Mr. Chavez has a well-documented history of using his munificence to achieve political ends. While Mr. Chavez peddles for American dollars, he can afford to buy influence in the upcoming Nicaraguan elections: Providing heavily subsidized fertilizer to Sandinista-controlled villages, Venezuela has bolstered support for Sandinista candidate and one-time dictator Daniel Ortega. Nicaragua’s elections are tomorrow, and Mr. Ortega would become an immediate Chavez ally. The primary purpose of the discounted heating oil program in the United States could hardly be anything other than to embarrass the Bush administration, Mr. Chavez’s favorite target.

This program says something about Venezuela’s priorities. Mr. Chavez has spent his petrodollars abroad prolifically to win support for his Bolivarian Revolution while problems of poverty still fester in Venezuela. Bernardo Alvarez Herrera, Venezuela’s ambassador to the United States, claimed that the money Venezuela stands to lose by offering some heating oil at 40 percent less than the market price would not make a real impact on the country’s ability to help its own poor because “the problem of poverty in our country is not money, it’s management.” That Venezuela is expanding the program at the same time as oil prices are falling — shrinking the country’s stream of oil revenue — shows the greater value that Mr. Chavez places on this propaganda gesture designed to discomfit the United States.

Mr. Chavez’s bombast at the United Nations — in which he referred to President Bush as “the devil” and damaged his now-defeated bid for a nonpermanent seat on the Security Council — did a lot of damage to his public relations. (It did more damage, in some cases, than can be corrected with discounted heating oil.) In Alaska, certain Indian villages rejected the subsidy. Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski deserves similar praise for his criticism of the program, suggesting, according to the Associated Press, that Mr. Chavez “practice a little recognition that charity begins at home.” Despite the many good reasons to spurn the Venezuelan leader’s oil offers, a disappointingly small number of politicians can claim such laudable opposition.

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