Hugo's Helping Hand

In a stunning reversal of largesse, the global community is sending aide to a superpower humbled by mythic disaster. But before Katrina came ashore, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez had already launched a stateside campaign to woo the hearts of America's poor.

On August 28, before Katrina hit land, Chávez announced a plan to offer discounted heating oil to U.S. poor through the Citgo Petroleum Corp., a unit of Venezuela's state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela.

"We want to help the poorest communities in the U.S.,'' Chávez said in his weekly television address. "There are people who die from the cold in winter in the U.S.''

Venezuela is the United States' fourth-largest oil supplier and the world's fifth-largest exporter. It sells some 1.5 million barrels a day of crude oil to Americans.

The same weekend, days after televangelist Pat Roberts said he should be assassinated, Chávez also announced he wanted to provide free eye examinations to U.S. residents with no health care. He made the offer to Reverend Jesse Jackson who was in Caracas to sooth tensions between the two countries.

Katrina hit and Chávez, who claims President Bush has plans to assassinate him and invade Venezuela, had a public relations softball.

He was the first foreign leader to offer aid workers, food and fuel. Citgo soon offered a $1 million donation and yesterday the company announced it would sell an additional 1 million barrels of oil to offset losses from the hurricane.

Thus the pickle: the Bush Administration, which accuses Chávez of using oil money to feed populist revolutions in America's "back door," is watching it come through the front in humanitarian envelopes.

But all of Chávez's generosity wasn't about disaster and suffering.

In Chicago, a city with a solid Latino voting block, Chávez's charity machine was at work. The Fiesta Boricua, a popular street festival that draws thousands of Latinos, took place only because a $100,000 donation from Citgo saved it at the last minute, the Chicago Tribune reported last week. "As Puerto Ricans in Chicago salute baseball great Roberto Clemente and other cultural icons at a festival this weekend," the paper said, "they also will pay homage to some unlikely new heroes: the Venezuelan ambassador to the U.S. and the chief executive of Citgo, a subsidiary of the Venezuelan state-owned oil company."

Some of the same new heroes will soon be on a six-city, U.S. public relations tour called "Venezuela Matters," which brings together businessmen, artists and academics together to show support for Chávez's social policies.

With his deft and unlikely blend of anti-American rhetoric and oil diplomacy, Chávez has won friends throughout Latin America, a continent increasingly distrustful of Washington, suspicious of neoliberal economics and strained by anti-globalist, indigenous forces.

But will the U.S. poor join the converted? The Chávez government hopes so.

"By showing that we are exporting solidarity and not bombs, we hope it will inspire people in the United States to say, Hey, that country and President Chávez are not what the media says they are. Because we've been helped," Martin Sanchez, the Venezuelan consul general in Chicago, told the Tribune.

Critics say Chávez, who is widely criticized within his own country as being a strong-arm oppressor, is capitalizing on tragedy. Even so, his gestures have forced even the staunchest critics, such as Congressman Connie Mack, R-Fla., to dull their sticks, at least temporarily. "Hugo Chávez is acting appropriately in a time of crisis," Mack told AlterNet through his spokesman. "It's good to see that he understands the severity of this disaster."

Michael Shifter, a vice president at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank, said Chávez's gestures to the poor in the United States are "good theater and even better politics. He has been waging this battle in Latin America, in an effort to extend his political influence and build a counterweight to the United States, and now, in a display of great audacity, he is appealing directly to the considerable underclass in the United States."

Shifter said it is no accident that Chávez's gestures coincide with a dramatic slide in Bush's level of support, and "the shameful catastrophe in New Orleans." But he added there will likely be no shift in the Bush administration's hard-line stances. Even so, Chávez has found at least a few powerful allies.

"The truth of the matter is that the Bush Administration is unhappy that the people of Venezuela democratically elected a president who does not pledge full allegiance to American interests," said Congressman Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., in an August press statement. "Therefore they cannot resist attacking President Hugo Chávez every chance they get and blaming him for every development in the region that they dislike."

When Katrina's wake subsides, Chávez will likely find that Serrano isn't his only North American amigo.


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