Never mind his terrible relations with the Bush administration and the Rev. Pat Robertson's recent call for his assassination.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez says he is shipping boatloads of extra gasoline to the U.S. market to help soften the impact of Hurricane Katrina -- and U.S. officials can only grit their teeth over the propaganda points he is scoring.
In a statement issued yesterday, Bernardo Alvarez, Venezuela's ambassador to Washington, spelled out the amounts and timing of the shipments: In the coming month, the state-owned oil company will deliver nearly 1 million barrels of gasoline, in addition to the 1.2 million scheduled, to Citgo Petroleum Corp., the U.S. refining and distribution firm that Venezuela bought in 1990. The fuel will be taken from storage and diverted from other customers.
"Venezuela is privileged to be able to help the United States in this time of need," Alvarez said. "We see ourselves as a compassionate people and hope that our efforts will help cope with current market needs of the U.S. for gasoline, and provide some immediate relief to the victims of this horrific natural disaster."
Although the gasoline will be sold on the open market rather than donated, it could help ease the near-term shortage that sent gas prices soaring after the storm knocked out refineries in the central Gulf Coast. Other countries, mostly tight U.S. allies in Europe and Asia, have also said they will release gasoline from reserves, but as Alvarez's statement noted, shipping times from Venezuela are only four to five days, so his country's cargoes "will be able to met U.S. needs that much sooner."
The move is the latest -- and one of the most colorful -- uses of oil as a political tool by Chavez, a pugnacious populist who has fashioned himself as Latin America's leading critic of U.S. foreign policy and American-style capitalism.
With his government's coffers bulging with oil revenue, Chavez has poured billions of dollars into programs for the poor, such as state-subsidized grocery stores, and struck generous oil deals with neighbors including Argentina, Brazil and Caribbean nations. His friendship with Cuban leader Fidel Castro has particularly rankled the White House; the antipathy that conservatives harbor toward him boiled over when Robertson, citing Chavez's claims that Washington wanted him assassinated, said on his television show last month that "we really ought to go ahead and do it." (The religious broadcaster later apologized for the remarks.)
The plan to ship gasoline -- which has been supplemented by Venezuelan proposals to provide low-cost heating oil and other aid to the poor in the Gulf region -- does not mean Chavez is trying to smooth things over with President Bush. He has repeatedly excoriated the administration for bungling the humanitarian emergency on the Gulf Coast, saying on TV Sunday: "How many children were killed because they could not be evacuated? . . . And Mr. Bush on holiday."
But by shipping the additional gasoline, "he is saying, 'We hate your government, but we like your people,' " said Moises Naim, a former Venezuelan cabinet minister who is now editor of the magazine Foreign Policy. "This is a very deliberate strategy."
Asked for reaction to the Venezuelan gesture, Noel Clay, a State Department spokesman, said, "They have made that offer, and it's still being considered." He referred to a briefing given in the morning by Harry K. Thomas Jr., the department's executive secretary, on offers of humanitarian assistance from foreign countries, during which Thomas said the Venezuelan aid offers, like all others, were still under consideration.
Although the planned gasoline shipments by a national oil company to a wholly owned U.S. subsidiary, unlike offers of aid, are presumably not subject to U.S. government approval, Clay repeatedly cited Thomas's remarks and said, "I'm going to let it stand at that."
That response puzzled Venezuelan officials. "This is not an 'offer,' " said Fadi Kabboul, the minister-counselor for petroleum affairs in the Venezuelan embassy. "It is something we are sending to the market, because there is a shortage."