By JENNIFER QUINN
The Associated Press
Tuesday, February 20, 2007; 4:27 PM
LONDON -- London's socialist mayor signed an agreement Tuesday with Venezuela's state-owned oil company to provide discounted oil for the city's iconic red buses, praising the idea as the brainstorm of the country's leftist leader, Hugo Chavez.
Ken Livingstone _ a committed socialist known locally as "Red Ken" _ met with Chavez last year at City Hall to discuss the deal to provide cheap oil to London in exchange for advice on urban planning in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital.
Venezuela has signed similar agreements with cities in several other countries, including the United States. Critics call it "oil diplomacy" _ and say it is designed to embarrass President Bush, whom Chavez has repeatedly mocked.
"This arose out of the suggestion of President Hugo Chavez, and builds on the work he is doing around the world to tackle the problem of poverty," Livingstone said.
The savings _ which would cut fuel costs by 20 percent for the city and could amount to about $32 million _ are to be directed toward cheaper bus travel for up to 250,000 Londoners living on income support. Those who qualify will get a half-price discount on bus fares.
Under the agreement, city officials in Caracas will receive recommendations from British experts for "the urban reorganization" of the capital, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicholas Maduro said in an interview broadcast on state-run television.
Conservatives on the London city council said in a statement that London shouldn't be doing business with "third-rate South American dictators with an appalling human rights and democratic record."
"Why does London, one of the richest capitals in the world, need to exploit a developing nation?" asked Richard Barnes, deputy leader of the London Assembly Conservatives. "This money would be better directed at the poor of Venezuela."
The U.S. government and Chavez's opponents at home accuse him of undermining Venezuela's democratic institutions since he was first elected in 1998. Chavez, who was widely re-elected to a six-year term in December, says he is trying to remake an unjust system that sidelined the poor majority.
Livingstone, an advocate of green policies, said Venezuela and London were merely exchanging commodities.
Venezuela is the world's eighth-largest oil exporter.
London spends about $195 million a year on fuel for its fleet of 8,000 buses. The savings from the new oil agreement with Venezuela are equivalent to slightly less than 1 percent of the total cost of providing London's bus services, the mayor's office said.
Associated Press Writer Christopher Toothaker in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.