Chávez's oil largesse winning fans abroad
MEXICO CITY AND LONDON
The London bus has come to symbolize many things over the years. It's a national icon, a picture postcard paragon of public transport, a byword for frustration and irregularity.Skip to next paragraph
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But a harbinger of international socialism? Far-fetched perhaps, but less so after the latest move by Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez to offer cut-rate fuel so that 250,000 Londoners on welfare can travel half-price throughout one of the world's most expensive cities.
The double-decker trademark isn't the only trace of Mr. Chávez's so-called "21st century socialism:" For the past year residents in New York, Boston, and other major US cities have scored cheaper heating bills, thanks to Venezuela. Chávez has also sent cheap oil to Cuba, Nicaragua, and more than a dozen other countries.
His offerings go beyond oil and have been announced with particular frenzy since he won a third term in December, promising $500 million in financing for Ecuador, $135 million for a dairy cooperative in Argentina, and a development plan in Nicaragua that includes generators to ease blackouts as well as a new development bank.
Analysts say his projects both in Latin America and beyond are singular among leaders sitting on vast energy reserves, as Chávez sets out to create a counterbalance to US dominance with a flurry of deals, measures, gifts, and grandiose schemes. To his harshest critics he's an egomaniac using an "energy bribe" to inflate his reputation. To fans he's the consummate humanitarian. Both agree that his moves have amounted to a PR coup, and some analysts even say the fallout could lead to a shift in social, economic, and political balances across the region.
"By situating Venezuela in these various international arenas of cooperation, the Chávez government is also attempting to limit what the US can do to isolate Venezuela," says Miguel Tinker-Salas, a Latin America oil and politics expert at Pomona College in California.
Certainly, providing subsidized oil to help residents pay bills and access public transportation has raised his visibility, cloaking him in the role of benefactor, says Larry Birns, director of the left- leaning Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington. "I think that these actions have projected an image for the average Latin American of great good will."
That has put pressure on other Latin American leaders, such as Brazil's Lula da Silva, for example. "I could easily see Lula throwing up his hands over Chávez's antics, but Lula regularly goes to Caracas hugging Chávez because he needs that for domestic consumption," says Mr. Birns.
It is this type of "demonstration effect," as Mr. Tinker-Salas calls it, that could ultimately prove lasting in the region and beyond.
In the US, Venezuela is sending oil subsidized at a 40 percent discount from the delivery price to 16 states – double from the year before – as well as 163 native American tribes. That represents 100 million gallons of fuel this winter. The program brochure describes it this way: "This is a people-to-people program that comes from the heart of Venezuela to the homes of American families who just can't pay their energy bills."
"In New York, residents wonder why a foreign country has to provide this. They want to know, 'Why can't you provide it? Or BP and Shell?' " says Tinker-Salas. "It's highlighting what those countries are not doing for their own populations."
That was the sentiment in November in a neighborhood called Las Torres, one of the poorest in Nicaragua's capital, Managua, which has been plagued by blackouts over the past year. "Light? Of course not," says Flor de Maria Flores, who regularly lights her home by candle, and, like so many of her neighbors, cooks over an open fire. She was vaguely aware of Chávez's plan to send discounted oil to her nation to help ease power blackout problems. "I'm glad someone is doing something about it," she says.