With Enemies like This; Hugo Chavez Has a New Weapon in His Battle against the Bush Administration: Low-Priced Oil for U.S. Cities

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Byline: Joseph Contreras and John Barry (With Phil Gunson in Caracas)

Applause and cheers welcomed the Citgo truck as it pulled up at a South Bronx curbside one icy morning last week. The 9,500-gallon tanker was on a mission for one of the Bush administration's most stubborn adversaries in the Western Hemisphere, but the crowd didn't seem to mind. The big thing was that Venezuela's leftist president, Hugo Chavez, was making good on his promise to help some of New York's poorest residents get through a winter of record-setting oil prices. The Venezuelan firm Citgo has agreed to supply 8 million gallons of heating oil to 75 low-income apartment buildings at a 40 percent discount--and the nonprofit landlords have agreed to pass on the savings to their tenants. "Some have tried to read politics into this outreach program," said Bernardo Alvarez, Caracas's ambassador to Washington. "But they should not do so. This is a humanitarian gesture on the part of the Venezuelan people to our neighbors in need."

Right. Chavez, a close personal friend of Fidel Castro's, has spent the past five years trading insults with the Bush administration. Senior U.S. aides view him as a dictator in the making and warn that he could destabilize the region. In return, the Venezuelan leader takes Bush to task for the invasion of Iraq, for collateral damage in Afghanistan and--closer to home--for tacitly endorsing the failed coup that briefly removed Chavez from power in 2002. Pat Robertson hardly improved relations last August by declaring that "our Special Forces should take him out." (The "700 Club" televangelist later apologized.) Lately Chavez has discovered a resonant new theme: the growing gulf between rich and poor in the United States.

Cheap oil is a perfect medium for Chavez's message. After all, his country has the largest proven crude reserves outside the Middle East, and Venezuela is the third largest exporter of oil and petroleum products to the United States. And who can argue with cut-rate fuel? Support for Chavez's new philanthropy is rising among some U. …