Chavez offers oil for poor

Venezuelan leader boosts subsidized program, targets Bush again

September 22, 2006|By Maggie Farley | Maggie Farley,Los Angeles Times

NEW YORK -- A day after he called President Bush "the devil" from the podium at the United Nations, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez stood on the altar of a church in Harlem and presented himself as an angel, offering 100 million gallons of subsidized heating oil to needy Americans.

"It makes us feel good to give," he told a crowd of mostly Harlem residents and Latin American immigrants waving Venezuelan flags and chanting his name.

The move more than doubles the 40 million gallons in heating oil Chavez donated to eight Northeastern states last year after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated refineries and caused the price of oil to spike. This winter, the program should reach about 1.2 million people in nine additional states, he said.

Chavez, speaking at Mount Olivet Baptist Church, acknowledged that it might seem odd for a developing country to be sending charity to one of the world's wealthiest nations.

"Some Venezuelans criticize me ... some say I should be in the barrios of Caracas," he said. "Apparently I am giving away all over the world what belongs to Venezuela."

Harlem is the latest place where Venezuelan oil has created warm feelings toward the outspoken leftist leader.

"We are afraid we won't be able to heat our building this winter, and someone told me about this guy," said Arthur Rena McDowell, a florist. "Somebody has got to make it better. It should start with our president, but it is starting with the president of Venezuela."

Venezuela, which already exports 1.5 million barrels a day to the United States, is able to use its oil wealth to bolster ties and influence in other countries in the region, especially to gain their favor. That could prove useful in the current U.N. contest between Venezuela and Guatemala to represent Latin America on the Security Council for the next two years. Washington, wary that Chavez will use the U.N. bully pulpit to rally opposition to U.S. interests, has been lobbying for Guatemala.

Chavez boasted of "walking around the world" to build ties and barter oil, describing what he got in exchange: pregnant cows from Bolivia, medical equipment from Argentina and 20,000 doctors from Cuba.

Chavez spoke for more than an hour on the altar next to a giant screen flashing the orange triangle logo of Citgo, a Venezuelan-owned oil company based in Houston. Citgo is partnering with Citizens Energy, a program run by former Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II, which sells and distributes discounted home heating oil to low-income families.

Kennedy did not attend yesterday's event.

Chavez, encouraged by a rousing response after he made another reference to Bush as the devil, played to the crowd, calling the president "an alcoholic and a sick man" and imitating what he called Bush's cowboy swagger.

"He doesn't have an idea of politics. He arrived where he is because of his father," Chavez said.

Bush has acknowledged that he had a drinking problem when he was young but gave up alcohol 20 years ago.

Chavez repeated threats to suspend oil exports to the United States, its biggest customer, if the U.S. government tries to oust him from power. He claims that the CIA backed a coup against him two years ago.

"One day, the people of the United States will choose a president with whom we can talk," he said. "You don't know how much I would like to have as a friend the president of the United States."

Maggie Farley writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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