Bush foe in Venezuela using cheap oil to befriend U.S. poor

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Hugo Chavez's detractors say he is trying to embarrass President Bush.

STAMFORD, Conn. -- The throbbing pain in Alan Francis' broken wrist worsened earlier this month when he ran out of oil to heat his home in frigid Maine.

But the 42-year-old ironworker was among a growing number of struggling Americans grateful to receive discounted heating oil from Venezuela, a country led by a man Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has likened to Hitler.

"It felt like Christmas," said Francis, who had been blasting his oven to try to stay warm. "This extra 53 gallons was awesome."

Venezuela, the fifth-largest foreign supplier of oil to the United States, has been supplying millions of gallons of heating oil at a 40 percent discount to poor Americans and free heating fuel to homeless shelters. Venezuela's leftist, pro-Castro president, Hugo Chavez, is a fierce critic of the Bush administration.

Chavez's detractors say he is trying to embarrass President Bush and build support for himself in the United States through the discounted oil program, which has been spreading quickly over the past three months. Delaware agreed earlier to month to participate, joining most of New England and parts of Pennsylvania and New York City.

"He's a brutal Marxist dictator," said Michael Heath, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine. "He's teamed up with Fidel Castro. He's trying to split our nation."

Still, Chavez is clearly getting political mileage out of the oil.

"We'd love it if other oil companies would make similar generous donations," said Beth Nagusky, who directs Maine's program and receives calls from residents who have run out of fuel. "Washington is failing us and failing the people."

'It's not fair'

The program is getting a mixed reaction in Venezuela.

"Our government is now giving Americans help while Venezuelans continue living in poverty. It's not fair," said Rafael Alvarez, a 33-year-old office worker opposed to Chavez.

But Wendi Padron, a Chavez supporter who hawks cookware on a street corner in Caracas, said: "Chavez is showing the people of the United States that we care, that we aren't against Americans, just the U.S. government."

Proponents say it fills a gap in a federal assistance program that has not kept pace with dramatically rising oil and gas prices. The Low Income Energy Assistance Program has been funded at about $2 billion a year for several years; senators from several cold weather states want to boost aid for poor families this heating season to $5.1 billion.

Recipients of the aid are happy to have warm homes and not too worried about the source of the help.

"The man's biggest crime is he's a socialist, but he's not a fascist," said Elaine DeRosa, who runs a child-care center for the poor in Cambridge, Mass. "It's going to help a lot of low-income people who the U.S. government isn't talking about. That's what we should be embarrassed about."

The program has allocated about 43 million gallons of oil so far.

In rural Vermont, the John Graham Homeless Shelter received a free shipment of heating oil last week and expects to get more. The donation made it easier to buy an alarm clock for a man who recently landed a job and purchase clean clothes for others looking for work, said executive director Elizabeth Ready.

"It will give us the ability to take care of some of those little details that can really make a difference for people," she said.

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