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Helpers Busy With Santa Chavez On Way

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Posted 11/25/2005 | Latin America: Oil earnings have given Hugo Chavez a colossal sense of his own power at home and abroad. He's not limiting himself to small countries like Bolivia, though. Surprise: The U.S. is also in his cross hairs.

Venezuela's president has targeted America and not just by organizing political fifth columns called "Bolivarian Circles" out of Fidel Castro's U.S. "Rolodex," as one U.S. official put it. He's also getting himself good press for delivering discounted oil for his handpicked "poor" in a bid to influence U.S. public opinion.

Chavez has won plaudits from the mainstream media for his newly launched program to deliver cheap heating oil to carefully "screened" low-income constituencies.

Venezuela's state oil company, PDVSA, through its Citgo subsidiary, has been commissioned to distribute $10 million worth of cut-rate fuel to "poor" communities in Boston and New York. A separate deal on cheap fuel for buses and hospitals is reportedly in the works for Chicago.

Chavez says it's something out of the goodness of his heart. But this subsidy from a foreign state resembles what the Soviets used to call "active measures." The opaque origins of it are where a problem's visible.

From Citgo's offices, executives say it's just good corporate citizenship in action. From the offices of the self-described "screeners," like Kennedy-family-run Citizen's Energy Corp., which is involved in this, it's only standing up for the poor.

From U.S. congressmen who are taking credit, we learn it's nothing more than looking out for the needs of constituents.

And several of these players are saying this was their own idea and Chavez just helped out. That is false. Chavez announced the scheme last August when Jesse Jackson paid a visit to Caracas.

It might not be anything more than good corporate citizenship, except that no other good corporate citizen requires the office of U.S. congressmen to have their hands in the deal to get it done.

When Wal-Mart helps out hurricane victims, no congressman is needed. When oil companies like Chevron, presumably one of many scolded for stinginess by Citizen Energy's Joe Kennedy, quietly hand out $63.8 million in "community initiatives" around the world, somehow no Kennedy was necessary to get the job done.

But when Chavez wants an easy public relations victory, a lot of middlemen like congressmen and Kennedys somehow need to be there, too.

Let's cut the naivete. This move explicitly signals political intent. In Chavez's case, we're looking at a maneuver to influence votes in Congress. At least two congressmen have jumped on board. In Massachusetts, Rep. Bill Delahunt is playing the midwife to this oil-for-Chavez-loyalty program, and in New York, Jose Serrano is the willing dupe. We still haven't heard who's going to step to the plate in Chicago, but we'd love to hear his story, too.

Chavez's moves are not the first time a malevolent leader has tried to put on a sunny new face. His cheap-fuel program echoes the free junkets to Iraq that Saddam Hussein handed out to leftist groups ahead of the Persian Gulf War.

Or the PR efforts Soviet KGB dictator Yuri Andropov made to appear cuddly and "human" to the U.S. public.

Or Manuel Noriega's courting of leftists in the weeks ahead of the Panama invasion.

All Chavez needs to do now is answer a letter from some carefully selected little U.S. girl to make the picture complete.

The problem in each of these cases is that an aggressive move to undermine and checkmate the U.S. on the foreign policy front was made exactly as the public relations moves started.

If Chavez were serious about delivering cheap fuel to the poor, he might start with his own people. Despite subsidized gas selling for 16 cents a gallon, half of Venezuela still can't afford it.

Or he might do something about the fuel shortages absolutely incredible in oil-rich Venezuela now reported in Tachira state. Or he might lower world prices by ending threats to cut off fuel to the U.S. Or he could just step up production which has fallen about 25% since the U.S. Energy Department looked at it in 2002.

But why does Chavez need to do that? By the time he does something really outrageous, like take over a small country (and he's dropping hints on Guyana), or imprison a dissident or undermine the U.S., he'll have all the support he needs in the U.S. Congress.

As congressmen protest their wonderful efforts to "help" constituents, the real issue is their willingness to let a hemispheric predator gain influence inside the U.S.

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