Features

Crude diplomacy

Venezuela | Hugo Chavez's oil programs are popular, but his missteps are starting to hurt him

Issue: "2006 Daniels of the Year," Dec. 16, 2006

High maritime winds make daunting winters in Alaska's Aleutian Islands. The chain spans 1,200 miles, arcing out to the western-most point of the United States. In the fall, islanders have to wait for mainland winter oil deliveries by air and barge, and this year one village had to evacuate temporarily when it ran out of fuel before they arrived. Still, when islanders got an offer for discounted heating oil, they turned it down.

That's because the oil was a gift from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez via CITGO, the U.S subsidiary of the country's state-owned oil company. At first, the Aleutians liked the offer to four of their communities: 100 gallons of heating oil per household. But tribal leaders decided they did not like Chavez's anti-American tirades-particularly the one at the United Nations in September where he called President Bush the devil.

"It was a hard choice, because we're working with a region where there's a lot of desperation," said Dimitri Philemonof, president of the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association.

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CITGO's program remains popular elsewhere, however, and its national winter oil allotment is doubling this year to 100 million gallons at a 40 percent discount. It's a U.S. extension of the kind of populism Chavez practices in Venezuela, which easily won him six more years in office on Dec. 3. But the islands are a small symbol of the consequences of Chavez missteps abroad this year, while at home Chavez faces a potential new challenge from a more united opposition.

Within three months this year, Venezuela's fractured opposition rallied behind Manuel Rosales to capture almost 40 percent of the vote in Dec. 3 elections. A hard-campaigning former governor of Zulia Province, Rosales cultivated a broad appeal with ideas ranging from rejuvenating foreign investment to supplying Venezuelans with state-issued debit cards that would give them direct access to oil wealth. His showing was better than analysts expected.

The opposition turnaround, given past blunders, is significant despite the foregone conclusion that Chavez would win. Leaders failed to gain power in a 2002 coup and a referendum to recall Chavez two years later. Last year, they boycotted the parliamentary elections, allowing the ruling party and allies to capture all 167 seats.

"Now the opposition will focus on constitutional reform and opposing tyranny, so they really have something they can unite for," said Alejandro Chafuen, president of the Atlas Economic Research Foundation.

In foreign policy, Chavez might be his own worst enemy. After his UN rant, Venezuela lost its bid to become a Security Council member. And although he is positioning himself to be Fidel Castro's successor as a socialist world leader, Chavez's Latin American neighbors are finding him meddlesome as he interferes in their nations' politics. In 2004, a Latinobarometro survey asked Latin Americans which country was their best friend. Only 3 percent named a regional neighbor-Brazil-while 10 times as many named the United States.

Still, Chavez's easy win shows he remains hugely popular among Venezuela's poor, many of whom now have health care and education thanks to Chavez. His oil largesse is winning fans in the United States, too, thanks to the CITGO program.

T. Patrice White-McGeese is a mother of three from the Bronx. Last winter, she saved $300 in rent because her apartment building participated in the Chavez heating oil program. In April, the company paid for her and 64 other Americans to visit Venezuela, and there White-McGeese appeared with Chavez on his TV show.

"The program I think is wonderful, and it would be wonderful if American companies could give back to the American people too," she said. Chavez's comments at the UN, she said, have "nothing to do with the oil program."

Philemonof and other Aleutians disagree, seeing a political agenda behind the CITGO program. After making radio appearances, he said sympathizers and local industry began sending in contributions to help with winter fuel costs. In total, the islands have received about $152,000, which almost covers what the oil company offered.

Aleutian leaders respect other tribes that took the CITGO fuel, but felt they had to be patriotic, Philemonof said: "We are Americans first. . . . Some people might say that doesn't put fuel in our pockets, but I've always said God provides."

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