Special Report

Stolen Oil

Hugo Chavez and Joe Kennedy deserve each other. But impoverished Venezuelans deserve better.

By 8.8.08

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Facing massive heating oil price increases, New Hampshire has opted to backtrack on a pledge -- an "attitude adjustment," the AP perhaps too gleefully calls it -- to deny Hugo Chavez a propaganda victory and is now encouraging Granite Staters to accept free Venezuelan heating oil semi-laundered through Joseph Kennedy's Citizens Energy.

With struggling relatives of my own in the state, I'm not quick to dismiss the needs that precipitated the policy shift. At the same time, the announcement stirred memories from my own recent travels in Venezuela. First and foremost, I recall the natural beauty of the country and the hospitality of its people even towards gringo Americans, about whom hardcore Chavistas have spread significant disinformation. (Did you know Santa Claus was a Yankee imperialist invention?) But I also remember the shockingly gargantuan tin shack and cardboard slums, the dilapidated barrios, human beings living in primitive, makeshift structures that morphed Western bourgeoisie guilt into a dagger nicking at the heart.

If anyone required more definitive proof that the formulation "Citizen of the World" is utterly meaningless, this Kennedy-Chavez Oil For Praise business should do it. The former Massachusetts representative demagogues "Big Oil" as "an island of bull-headedness and smugness" for not donating to Citizens Energy and failing to abide the limit on "unearned profits" Joe has nominated himself to arbitrarily arbitrate. (A $400,000 yearly salary to head a "nonprofit" is totally kosher, though.) Yet Venezuela, a nation in which nearly 40 percent of its population lives in abject poverty and has an oil industry nationalized ostensibly for the greater good, deserves praise for shipping off valuable resources to the richest nation in the world sans any remuneration? Aside, that is, from puffing up the already outsized ego of the preening, blustery megalomaniac leading the country, payment that will neither feed nor house anyone.

The Venezuelan poor, I can attest from direct observation, are suffering indignities that are, at best, on par with the American working class and, at worst, would horrify even the poorest among us. Inflation is currently at 32 percent -- the highest in Latin America -- while food prices this year alone have risen more than 50 percent. "Some people say it's bad politics to do this," Kennedy intones at the end of one commercial, defending Citizens Energy's distribution of Venezuelan oil. "I say it's a crime against humanity not to."

Humanity, however, encompasses more than the American citizenry, even if accepting charity coerced out from under the destitute population of a Third World nation is not only not a "crime against humanity" in JoeWorld, but also swell humanitarian policy. Presumably this means Joe Kennedy would have nothing but praise for George W. Bush if the president announced tomorrow he was taking all the funds earmarked for the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and unilaterally sending them to another nation as a sign of friendship. Is what's good for the Third World goose just as good for the First World gander?

Typically, subverting the needs of outsiders to benefit those you have a tribal identification with would be described by political animals of the Kennedy persuasion as nativism or, in foreign policy, corporate imperialism. A Kennedy makes himself a fortune facilitating the exact same thing, though, and we call it charity, or heroism, even, in less modest moments, of which Joe Kennedy, the self-aggrandizing star of every single one of the ubiquitous Citizens Energy commercials, has no shortage of. Call 1-877-JOE-4-OIL and you aren't just getting cheap oil. You're helping build a fledgling cult of personality.

IF THIS WAS REALLY JUST ABOUT helping America's poor at any cost, Joe Kennedy could diffuse the entire controversy with a Hey, this means less profits for Venezuela to funnel to FARC. He could do his best Brando and say, He made me an offer I couldn't refuse or tell us he's going to do something good with a gift from a bad man or point out that Citizens Energy signed its first oil contract with Venezuela in 1979, long before Chavez. For all his pro forma caveats about not endorsing every policy of the Venezuelan state, however, Kennedy nevertheless cannot manage to suppress his admiration for the so-called Bolivarian revolution, even if it is only our capitalistic consumption that makes Chavez's 21st Century Socialism possible in the first place.

"[M]y goodness gracious," he gushed to Business Week, "Hugo Chavez can quote Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln by heart." When the Wall Street Journal pointed out Chavez's undemocratic decrees and dissent quashing, Kennedy mused angrily that there was "ample room for improvement in the ways that people get elected in Venezuela as well as in Florida," striving to create an absurd equivalency between Bush and Chavez. That a democracy is easier to run and elections easier to win when you blacklist the opposition, and legislative compromise a breeze when you decree laws voted down in popular referendum, is immaterial to Kennedy, who happily parrots the "CITGO, owned by the Venezuelan people" line.

I've stood outside the HQ of Venezuela's nationalized oil company/ministry PDVSA. It is red-bereted soldiers as far as the eye can see, and rest assured they aren't there to usher the hoi polloi upstairs to confer with the generals, the executives or the generals masquerading as executives. Even Chavez recognizes what a joke this is. A day after the infamous U.N. speech in which he called George W. Bush "the devil" and sent Noam Chomsky to the top of the literary pops, Chavez admitted during a visit to a Harlem church that his own people -- you know, the heralded owners of Venezuela's oil -- might not be thrilled about the Kennedy-Chavez Oil for Praise program: "Some say I should be in the barrios of Caracas. Apparently I am giving away all over the world what belongs to Venezuela."

He'll give it away anyway, of course, because despite the orgasmic shudders of the American Left whenever he pops up in his little red beret, Chavez' rule has always been about living out his transnational Simon Bolivar fantasy first, and the good of his nation a distant second.

ALAS, HOWEVER MUCH PRAISE JOE KENNEDY showers on Hugo Chavez, those who question that praise are quickly dismissed as "hypocrites who criticize a program that helps the poor, but are perfectly happy to drive their cars, fill their boats, fly their planes and heat their homes using Venezuelan oil." To believe Chavez is truly a friend to America's poor, Kennedy must willfully choose to ignore the rise in oil prices caused by his pal Chavez's OPEC activism, periodic threats to cut off exports to the U.S. and seizure of oil platforms Western companies have spent billions and billions of dollars to build in his country.

Even setting that inconvenient truth aside, however, in the average stateside CITGO transaction, what is expected of American consumers is a market value payment. That's it. It may be a dirty business, but upon payment we're even. Joe Kennedy apparently hasn't quite come to terms with the fact that he is paying a price for the $100 million worth of CITGO assistance and the high profile influence those resources afford him. He covers the bill with the continuous shilling that gives propaganda cover to an ever-more autocratic ruler who is willing to let his own people suffer so he can poke Bush in the nose. Maybe Kennedy likes paying that bill. Maybe he doesn't. When I see yet another of his full-throated, indignant defenses, though...well, the Kennedy doth protest too much, methinks.

For what it's worth, I believe John J. Metzler got it right earlier this year when he wrote that Chavez' "propaganda ploy...should not be shrugged off by Americans but challenged and met by American giving." Urging individual Americans to tap their proven reserves of generosity is the right response. And even if free Venezuelan oil does wind up an offer some can't refuse, there's no law saying Joe Kennedy has to be such an enthusiastic fellow traveler on the anti-America express.

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