Last December page A-27 of the New York Times displayed a picture of a very American-three story house complete with Christmas adornments and a welcoming open door. Above the house sat a caption in big bold letters, “How Venezuela is Keeping the Home Fires Burning in Massachusetts.” Yes, that’s right, Venezuela, a country most Americans could not pick out of a Latin American lineup a year ago is beating its chest in the New York Times. Now people from Quincy, Massachusetts to Chicago’s barrios know the name Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s president, and many consider him a good and generous man who wants to help them pay their winter heating bills. This positive image of Chávez has emerged despite the fact that the U.S. government vehemently hates him, and the truth that as a leader, he floats somewhere between good, amusing and at times extremely divisive.
Since Hurricane Katrina and the U.S. government’s visible failure to respond to the needs of its own people, Venezuelan officials have waged a large-scale public relations effort to sell their country as the new super power on the block. They have backed it up with a range of socioeconomic promises and programs, some empty, some marginally successful, right here in the United States, a place not even sworn enemies like Cuba and the Soviet Union ever dared to publicly tread. This effort is fueled by an increasingly valuable massive oil reserve and driven by Venezuela’s willingness to use its newfound wealth in a brash, autonomous fashion all over the hemisphere, mostly through energy subsidies. But what does it mean that President Hugo Chávez is taking oil and socialism to the streets of the United States? And who is buying into this curious venture by a country best known for its own poverty and disarray?
In a September speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York President Chávez served notice of his intent to change the world, “Simón Bolívar, founding father of our country and guide of our revolution swore to never allow his hands to be idle or his soul to rest until he had broken the shackles which bound us to the empire. Now is the time to not allow our hands to be idle or our souls to rest until we save humanity.” During the same trip, his first to the United States in his six years as president, Chávez said he wanted up to ten percent of the Venezuelan oil refined in the U.S. to go to poor people at reduced costs, and, he added, “we’re just starting with this project.” This promise might seem like a stretch, but Chávez’s cause is buoyed by the fact that Venezuela owns the Citgo gas corporation, a Houston based network that includes tens of thousands of gas stations around the U.S. and nine refineries. Citgo has been the driving force behind Chávez’s energy assistance program, an effort that has brought small amounts of discounted heating oil to low income neighborhoods in the South Bronx, Boston, Maine and Rhode Island. Vermont and New Hampshire are also in the hunt for discount fuel deals.
A controversial figure in the highbrow U.N. General Assembly fall meetings in Manhattan, President Chávez sought comfort by heading north to the Bronx, to visit some of New York’s poorest neighborhoods. “This,” he said, “is my real summit.” During his visit, Chávez played maracas with a salsa band, kissed babies and promised at least three non-profit groups to fly them down to visit Venezuela. Emilia Wiles works for one of those non-profits, an after school center for at-risk teenagers. President Chávez stopped by her program and held a private meeting with her twenty students. Wiles says the visit was life changing for an impoverished neighborhood that often feels ignored, “he talked to each student individually, learned their names, gave them a lot of inspiration telling them “the heart of change is in the poor,” “The kids are still quoting him to this day. They found him so inspirational, I mean, who comes to the South Bronx?”
Since Chávez’s visit, Emilia Wiles has tried to organize the promised visit of her students to Venezuela. So far she has gotten nowhere. Venezuelan officials explained that President Chávez promises lots of things and that not all of them can come true. In fact Chávez’s own embassy in the U.S. struggles to keep up with his offers, having to go back and study speeches and interviews to see exactly what he promised and to whom. In a September interview, Chávez announced a slew of pilot initiatives that would kick off in a predominantly Latino neighborhood in Chicago, Little Village, where Citgo would provide heating oil and discounted diesel fuel for school buses. When the time came to figure out the details, Venezuelan and Citgo officials realized Chicago runs its heat on natural gas, not heating oil, and that the recently built Little Village high school was constructed for the specific reason that kids could walk to school. Not to be deterred, the local Venezuelan consulate then promised a program that would donate diesel fuel to the Chicago Transit Authority in exchange for reduced public transportation fares for poor people. The CTA initially rejected that offer, saying that the kind of fuel Citgo produces would damage some of the public busses. The city agency also questioned how officials would decide who could access the reduced fare offer. While the CTA was busy rejecting Venezuela’s offer, it simultaneously raised transportation fares by twenty-five cents to two dollars. Public outrage ensued and both politicians and activists have called on the city to find a way to take the Venezuelans offer of a billion dollars worth of fuel.
Whether or not Venezuela is actually coming through on its offers, it has found a way to come across as the good guy. The Bush government was derided by a variety of U.S. activists, intellectuals and politicians for rejecting President Chávez’s offer of water, food, generators and medical supplies after Hurricane Katrina. While Chávez used Katrina as a launching point for his “petro-diplomacy” efforts in the United States, in reality his social initiatives had started almost a year earlier when he ordered consulates in places like Chicago to begin making inroads with community and nonprofit groups. Venezuelan officials also began cultivating ties with the U.S. Congress, befriending people like Massachusetts Congressman William Delahunt and New York Congressman Jose Serrano, who were instrumental in bringing reduced cost heating oil to their districts.
For some communities in the U.S., Venezuela has even emerged as the go-to-guy. Robert Free Galvan is a Native American activist who contacted Venezuelan officials last August after visiting the country for a conference. He wanted to know if Indian tribes might be able to get a deal on fuel. Since August, Galvan has been actively trying to locate tribes who are close to Citgo refineries and have infrastructure compatible with their fuel. Free Galvan says since word got out about his efforts, he has been receiving hundreds of emails, many of them like this one:
Dear Mr. Free,
I am writing to inquire about how to apply for low cost heating oil from Venezuela for my elderly Mother. She is not a Native American; just poor.
Free Galvan helped broker a deal with the state of Maine and Citgo to provide eight million gallons of heating oil at a 40 percent discount to four different tribes.
Some of Venezuela’s offers have gone beyond energy assistance. The Chicago consulate has been touting a health initiative since the fall that would provide eye surgery to poor residents. According to consul officials, an airplane would come from Venezuela to Chicago and other cities, pick up people who have filled out the requisite paperwork and have professional diagnoses, and take them to Caracas for eye surgery. Initially, the plane was supposed to arrive just after the New Year. More recent estimates say some time in March. The consulate says it has realized many of the applicants do not have passports or are illegal immigrants. Chicago’s consul general Martin Sanchez maintains his optimism as he sits behind a large wood desk that dwarfs his diminutive frame. An enormous portrait of Simón Bolívar hangs above him. Sanchez says helping people in the United States is not easy work, but he says his government means business. “People here in the U.S. really have needs. And the gap between rich and poor is wide too. We don’t see this as a P.R. stunt, but a sincere offer to the U.S..”
President Chávez likes to promote these deals as Venezuela’s attempts to be a good neighbor. Many of these offers are viewed by the U.S. as an attempt to solidify a leftist shift in Latin America, a move away from the free market, democratic U.S. way of doing things. Should this remind us of anything? Harvard University’s Marshall Goldman, an expert on Russian economics, says Russia used its state-owned oil reserves to woo countries to its side of the Cold War and support them when the U.S. turned its back on them. But there is one main difference says Goldman, Russia never brought its road show to the United States in a very public, direct way. Professor Phillip Brenner, a Latin American expert at American University, says President Chávez has found the United States government and media a tough sell because the Bush administration has been fighting an internal battle over how to view Venezuela. “If we think of Latin America in the way Teddy Roosevelt thought of Latin America or President Taft, that it is ours to exploit, than yes, it (Venezuela) is a threat. But if we think of Venezuela and Latin America in the Franklin Roosevelt model, as a neighbor, or in the Kennedy model, that we have a shared alliance for progress, he’s (Chávez) not opposing those goals, he’s opposing dominance by the United States.”
John Walsh, a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America, says Venezuela’s social efforts in the U.S. are a kind of ideologically driven PR. “They do believe it is the right thing to do. They also believe, and I think correctly, that it’s a politically profitable thing to do. And not that it be an anonymous gift, but that it be very closely tied in people’s minds to the Venezuelan government.” Walsh says Chávez has a unique leverage when it comes to the United States because the Bush government depends on Venezuela for around a quarter of its oil. Walsh also points out that Venezuela is closer and a less volatile place than the Middle East, and it is making enough money from oil that it avoids handouts from the World Bank and IMF, avoiding the strings that tie most other Latin nations.
It is no secret that Chávez has won two elections and many referendums in large part due to his popularity with Venezuela’s poorest residents. Most recently, he has begun to use growing revenue from his country’s sizeable oil reserves to pay for things like widespread literacy, universal health care, and other social programs. Despite doubters, even within his own administration, Chávez has also used energy resources to expand his influence all over the Americas. Initiatives like Petro Caribe and Petro Sur, have begun to deliver oil products directly to Caribbean and Latin nations. These programs have given countries discounts on oil now, while prices are still high, and allowed them to pay Venezuela back over time. The Venezuelan government also helped Argentina pay off its IMF debt and is planning to develop a joint oil venture with Brazil. Uruguayan vice president Rodolfo Nin Novoa, a moderate conservative, was on the receiving end of a deal that would get Venezuelan oil at almost half the going rate for a barrel with no interest for 20 years. American University’s Phillip Brenner says when he asked Nin Novoa about the offer from Chávez, whom he differs with politically, he responded, “What do you think I think of him? This is an enormous gift that will let us move ahead. He didn’t ask anything in return.” Venezuelan Energy minister Fadi Kabboul says with prices so high, it is important to give friends and customers a break, at least in the interim. “The concept here, if you have a customer, and the price is too high, you have to decide, do you kill your customer or do you help him so he can still consume your product?” Furthermore says Kabboul, “you need to understand that oil belongs to the people.” Kabboul says nobody understands this better than Venezuela, which, despite having oil for more than 70 years, has allowed extreme poverty to persist.
But how much of this effort by Venezuela is pure show and how much is real assistance? Phillip Brenner says Venezuela’s initiatives in the U.S. are a “clever ploy,” but too small scale to be significant. Even some of Chávez’s own ministers try to downplay his big plans. Energy minister Fadi Kabboul says these efforts will only last until fuel prices go down, hopefully just a few months. Kabboul says Venezuela has no long-term goals to use energy assistance as a way to create social change in a place like the U.S., “Of course we don’t pretend to do this in the U.S. because this is the job of the U.S.. It’s not our job to go and do this.” Back in Venezuela some politicians and sectors of the public are wary of Chávez’s spending in places like the United States. They worry that when oil prices drop, Venezuela will be overextended, and not enough money will be left for domestic use.
While the political significance of these energy assistance programs is debated, Venezuelan officials continue their push to make inroads in communities around the United States. On an October morning last fall, Chicago consul general Martin Sanchez handed out flyers at his office for a speaking engagement on Chicago’s South Side titled “The Truth About Venezuela, What’s Going On? Will the U.S. Attack?” He also ran from phone to phone, making sure everything was in place for a Chicago exhibition entitled, “Venezuela Matters,” a two day conference aimed at business leaders and local Latino politicians. City Council member Billy Ocasio, who represents Chicago’s predominantly Puerto Rican West Humboldt Park neighborhood, cut the ceremonial ribbon at the event, “I’m glad to announce that they (Venezuela) have come to Chicago to launch themselves as the country that we all need to know, the country we all need to work with.” Attendees gazed at a high-end diorama of large screen televisions and billboards with enticing photos of beautiful landscapes mixed with text referring to human rights and social development. Venezuela’s highest profile exports, baseball players and oil were also prominent in the exhibit, which attempted a balancing act between inviting tourism and marketing socialism.
Venezuelan ambassador Bernardo Alvarez was on hand for the festivities, as was Citgo CEO Felix Rodriguez, both of them working the crowd with handshakes and hugs. The buzz in the room was that Alvarez and Rodriguez would announce a major initiative to bring energy relief to Chicago. Rodriguez gave a speech in Spanish explaining how oil wealth comes with an enormous humanitarian responsibility, but he offered no concrete details of any local program. Ambassador Alvarez was pushed for some concrete answers in a press conference. One reporter asking, “Is this a program that would possibly start this winter?” Alvarez openly grinned his response, “it has to start, if not I lose my job.”
Chicago resident Jose Lopez sat idly in the back of the exhibition room. Lopez runs the Puerto Rican Community Center in the West Humboldt Park neighborhood, one of the city’s poorest. In the past year, his community has been visited by Ambassador Alvarez, the mayor of Caracas, and consul general Martin Sanchez. Citgo even shelled out a hundred thousand dollars last summer to save the cash starved local Puerto Rican day parade. Across the street from Lopez’s youth center sits a Citgo station, something he no longer views as a coincidence. He said it has been a long wait, but somebody has finally answered his community’s cries for help. “We have to look at the reality that you haven’t addressed the needs of those people for so many years. Why not get some imaginative proposals from other people.” Whether or not Lopez gets any meaningful direct help from Chávez is to be seen, but even if it is just rhetoric from a man who likes to talk, he appreciates the attention.
The verdict is still out on Venezuela’s surprising and at times unsteady venture into the world of foreign diplomacy and economic hegemony. Oil wealth has made the growth of Chávez’s presence in the Americas possible, but it is hard to say what exactly his efforts will amount to. What is certain is that Chávez has bought an audience from Maine to Argentina. Politicians scrambling to provide for their communities are happy to entertain energy deals, and their constituents, not least of all the poor, are eager to hear talk of a new world order, one where they are included. Chávez optimists say his willingness to utilize Venezuela’s oil wealth to foster social support not just internally but abroad could be a spark that moves the hemisphere in a new direction over time. Critics say as soon as oil prices drop, Chávez is doomed, that he has over-committed Venezuela’s black gold and scared away necessary foreign investors with his fiery rhetoric and socialist policies. But regardless of what happens next, Chávez, with a little assistance from the ghost of Simón Bolívar and Hurricane Katrina, has planted the seed that the United States is vulnerable, and that its poor residents are as eager for outside help as the masses of impoverished people around Latin America.
Jesse Hardman is a freelance reporter for National Public Radio and print. He has covered stories from Mexico, Chile and Colombia during his career. Hardman also works on issues related to free press and journalism development.