Observer from Caracas

By Andy Webb-Vidal

Financial Times

Published: December 5 2005

Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s firebrand president, is a man of the people. And, without doubt, a generous man, too. El Comandante Chávez will next week begin distributing cheap heating oil to poor residents of Boston and environs.

“How Venezuela is keeping the home fires burning in Massachusetts’’ was the headline of an expensive full-page advert last week in some US newspapers. The text explained how Citgo, which is owned by the Venezuelan state, will distribute 12m gallons of fuel at a discount of up to 80 cents.

The snow-bound of America’s north-east will surely be delighted. However, Venezuela shantytown poor might be less pleased at the idea that The Boss (as he is now fondly known by some of his supporters) is giving away cheap oil to the gringos, supposedly the sworn enemy of the Revolution.

According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, residents of Massachusetts earn on average $42,102 per year. That’s 10 times more than Venezuela’s per capita income.

President George W. Bush, whose approval ratings in recent months have been undermined in part by rising fuel prices, might also be fuming at Hugo’s latest ruse.

Banx

But it is a warm reward for William Delahunt, the Massachusetts congressman who, as part of a small group of other Democratic congressmen, has long lobbied that El Comandante should be treated as a universal friend of the people and not as the pan-American menace he is perceived to be in the White House.

Next on the list of beneficiaries: José Serrano, Democratic representative, who will oversee a project to distribute Chávez fuel in the Bronx.

Invasion thwarted

Other congressmen have recently had somewhat less luck in their dealings with the Sultan of Caracas.

Stories abound as to what really led to the incident in which a delegation led by Henry Hyde, the respected Republican chairman of the congressional International Relations Committee, was denied entry into Venezuela last week.

Hyde was expected to sit down for a fireside chat with Chávez in an effort to temper deteriorating relations between Washington and Caracas. “We’ve been told at least five different stories as to what happened,’’ Observer’s man inside the US embassy confides.

According to Hyde, it was “capricious’’ airport officials that left his delegation, including Democrat Tom Lantos, on the tarmac in tropical heat. (Venezuela denies that the delegation was blocked at all, allowing only that the airport gate reserved for dignitaries was occupied at the time.) But one story making the rounds is that an eagle-eyed – and evidently overzealous – Chávez underling correctly identified the aircraft as belonging to the US Air Force.

An Observer source at the airport discloses that the hero thought he had bravely repelled the vanguard of Chávez’s oft-warned imminent US invasion.

Hyde, who is wheelchair bound, retreated to Aruba for the night. The invasion, it would seem, has been suspended for now.

Cigar substitute

No visa is required, of course, if El Comandante Chávez wants to go and propose a novel idea to his septuagenarian soulmate across the Caribbean, El Comandante Castro.

In a world exclusive, Observer can reveal that Chávez has helped Castro find a substitute for the Cohiba cigars he was forced to give up in the early 1980s for health reasons.

During a recent visit to a road-show of Venezuelan goods in Havana, Chávez took Castro to see a stall displaying the luxurious, dark chocolate produced by Chocolates El Rey, a Venezuelan company.

Varieties of cocoa beans produced in Venezuela are considered to be the best in the world, according to some connoisseurs. Castro seems to agree: he was seen munching bar after bar of the stuff.

The sugary delights of the capitalist confectionery industry may have found a new emerging market in Cuba. Or at least in Havana’s Palace of the Revolution.

Is fluoridation next?

The late Peter Sellers has no obvious connection with Chávez. Until now, that is.

It recently emerged that Venezuela is seeking a “medium-sized’’ nuclear reactor, and the president’s envoys have already asked Argentina if it can come up with the goods.

Why on earth would Chávez, who is sitting atop the largest oil reserves in the western hemisphere, need nuclear technology, some US defence officials have asked.

Those with darker suspicions about his motives are taking inspiration from the film Dr Strangelove, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, the cold war classic directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Sellers.

They have come up with a neat nickname for Chávez: Señor Strangelove.