Chávez didn't use oil simply as an economic tool; he used it to prop up governments and score political points. In 2011, for example, Venezuela received 344,000 metric tons of food in exchange for oil – rice from Guyana; coffee from El Salvador; sugar, coffee, meat, and more from Nicaragua; beans and pasta from the Dominican Republic. Venezuela has refined oil for Ecuador at discount prices, sent diesel to Syria, and struck a deal to sell Cuba discounted oil in exchange for medical treatment for Venezuelans. These efforts helped prop up governments that Chávez favored.
In 2005, he offered to send emergency supplies to American victims of Hurricane Katrina. Through Citgo, a PDVSA subsidiary, he gave away heating oil to several hundred thousand poor Americans for several years running.
In last year's presidential campaign, opposition candidate Henrique Capriles promised to put an end to such gifts. He was handily defeated. But such foreign aid is expensive and increasingly difficult to justify at a time when Venezuela's own economy is struggling with rampant inflation and increasingly severe electricity blackouts.