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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 March 2006, 17:10 GMT
Chavez pours oil on troubled waters

By Jonathan Beale
BBC News, New England

There is little love lost between the presidents of the United States and Venezuela. Hugo Chavez calls George W Bush a terrorist - the US president accuses him of being a left-wing dictator.

Venezuela's CITGO brings Massachusetts residents discounted heating oil
Venezuela is offering discounted heating oil to needy US residents
But they have one thing in common: oil. And now Hugo Chavez has come up with a way of using his oil to spread his revolution.

He is offering poor Americans hundreds of thousands of gallons of cut price fuel to help them heat their homes - Venezuela's response, he says, to the events of Hurricane Katrina.

So how is the US responding to this offer of help from a country viewed as a threat by President Bush?

Mr Chavez, a man with his own signature tune and six-hour weekly television show, is a figure of fear and loathing in Washington.

He is a left-wing leader who has declared war on American imperialism, and his views in turn have prompted an extreme response among some Republicans, including the television evangelist Pat Robertson who said: "We have the ability to take him out and I think the time has come that we exercise that ability."

That war of words is now being fought out here in New England.

'Pumping goodwill'

There is snow on the ground in Maine and the temperatures are plummeting. This is where Mr Chavez is launching his latest front in his cold war against the president of the United States.

I think that from the point of view of [Chavez's] cash flow it is peanuts... From the point of view of his political agenda, it is gold
Prof Ricardo Hausman

An oil tanker reverses into the driveway of a modest clapperboard home, a sign that the Hugo Chavez road show has arrived in New England.

It is delivering cut-price heating fuel from Citgo, a company wholly owned by the Venezuelan government.

Mr Chavez is pumping goodwill as well as the oil into the homes of thousands of needy Americans.

And he has even enlisted the help of US politicians like Maine's Democratic Governor John Baldacci, whose own involvement is proving controversial.

This testy exchange illustrates the point:

Me: "Do you admire Hugo Chavez for what he's done?"

John Baldacci: "I don't get into the politics, you know..."

Me: "But it's his decision. I mean, you have got into the politics whether you like it or not."

John Baldacci: "Well, I haven't."

Me: "But he has given this oil to the people of Maine, the poor people..."

John Baldacci: "That's right. And we appreciate and thank him for that very much and we thank Citgo Venezuela for that."


Among those people who are directly benefiting - like pensioners Malcolm and Mary Lyons - there is no doubting their appreciation for President Chavez.

Anti-American graffiti in Caracas
The oil offer comes amid political tensions between the US and Venezuela

Without his help, Mary Lyons says they simply would not be able to afford to heat their home.

"It's very comforting," she says. "I think it's a wonderful gesture. Thanks to the Venezuelan people to make this all happen to us."

But it's a very public gesture being witnessed by the world's media, raising the question: is this a programme genuinely designed to help the poor or more for the publicity?

Ricardo Hausman, a former minister in the Venezuelan government, is a professor at Harvard University.

"I think that from the point of view of his cash flow it is peanuts. From the point of view of his political agenda, it is gold.

"It is an incredible investment in political visibility out of something that doesn't really make much sense except in the context of that political agenda."

It is President Chavez's agenda that worries Washington. He is seen as an increasingly anti-democratic and destabilising force throughout Latin America. But it is proving hard to bite the hand that feeds.

Public relations war

Venezuelan oil helps keep the American economy running and Citgo operates 15,000 gas stations right across the country.

Why isn't anybody criticising the Kuwaitis or the Saudis or any of the others who are out there raking it in and not providing any assistance to anybody?
Joe Kennedy

Overall, Venezuela is the fifth largest exporter of oil to the United States, selling 1.5 million barrels of oil every day.

But President Bush can do little to halt the Chavez road show which has now moved on to Rhode Island. Here he's getting the support from the Kennedy clan.

Former Democratic Congressman Joe Kennedy says the Bush administration should be backing, not criticising the Venezuelan president.

"Why isn't anybody criticising the Kuwaitis or the Saudis or any of the others who are out there raking it in and not providing any assistance to anybody?

"And here's one guy who provides a little bit of help and assistance to the poor and he's under unbelievable criticism. It's politics, it's not the reality of what he's doing - it's the politics of it."

Here in New England it is President Chavez not President Bush who appears to be winning this public relations war.

And whatever Hugo Chavez's motives are for providing cheap heating fuel for the poor - to many Americans actions speak louder than words.

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