Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Hugo's Helping Hand

By Kelly Hearn, AlterNet
Posted on September 7, 2005

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.


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