WASHINGTON — When the Venezuelan Embassy and CITGO recently launched the Washington leg of their discounted heating-oil program for America's poor, President Hugo Chavez's publicity machine went into high gear.
The launch was held in the modest home of Safronia Holland, a black woman described by CITGO as a "67-year-old grandmother struggling ... with rising energy costs." Children waved Venezuelan flags, and Venezuelan diplomats beamed. There was food — and lots of media.
While Chavez regularly rails against U.S. "imperialism," he is also spending upwards of $70 million to improve his image in the United States, from Washington to Alaska. His embassy, among Washington's busiest, works with dozens of groups that favor his left-wing "Bolivarian" revolution. And his discount heating-oil program has benefited tens of thousands of America's poor.
Indeed, no Latin American country in recent history has invested so much money and effort in shaping U.S. perceptions of its government, largely negative as a result of Chavez's anti-Bush rhetoric, his friendship with Cuba and Iran, and doubts about his commitment to democracy.
Chavez's oil-fueled "revolution" has made him beloved or despised in his own country, boosted his standing as mentor of leftist Latin American leaders like Bolivia's Evo Morales and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega — and provided the resources to lobby for grass-roots support in the United States.
"I wouldn't say he's anti-American. He is clearly, however, anti-U.S. hegemony," said Kenneth Roberts, who teaches Latin American affairs at Cornell University. "He has this strategic vision of redistributing power in world affairs. He has a stronger vision of that than any other leader we've seen in this generation."
True to Chavez's populist ways, he has been trying to reach the American people directly, rather than the traditional way of lobbying U.S. Congress members.
A draft of the Venezuelan foreign ministry's budget for 2008 requests $193 million to "intensify" Venezuela's actions worldwide. That does not include salaries for diplomats and other routine expenditures.
The document, obtained by El Nuevo Herald, says that in the United States, the ministry wants to encourage exchanges with social movements, spread the word on Venezuela through alternative media, step up its support of the "excluded sectors of U.S. society," and promote "groups in solidarity with the Bolivarian revolution."
Such pro-Chavez groups remain small, however. A Venezuela Solidarity Network screening Dec. 1 in Washington of a documentary on Chavez's victory in a 2004 recall referendum drew fewer than a dozen people.
The first pro-Chavez groups in the United States sprang up in 2002, when the Bush administration faced accusations — strongly denied — that it had backed a coup against Chavez that year. Today, three networks remain active, often led and supported by Americans involved in a broad range of left-of-center activities.
Chuck Kaufman, a veteran of the opposition to U.S. policies in Nicaragua in the 1980s, set up the Washington-based Venezuela Solidarity Network while Alan Woods, editor of the publication In Defense of Marxism, founded the Minneapolis-based group Hands Off Venezuela.
Kaufman says he has branches in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Houston and 2,000 e-mail contacts for his "emergency response network," which alerts activists to possible U.S. government actions against Chavez.
Venezuela Solidarity Network's East region coordinator, Banbose Shango, says he supports several Havana causes, including Free the Five, a campaign seeking the release of Cuban intelligence agents convicted in Miami and serving prison terms.
Then there are the U.S. versions of the pro-Chavez volunteer groups known as Bolivarian Circles.
They coordinate only loosely among one another, making it hard to determine how many are active. William Camacaro, who heads the one in New York, says they exist in many major urban centers, including Houston, Los Angeles, Boston and Chicago. There is also a circle in Miami.
"We're trying to contain the propaganda that exists in the mainstream media against the Venezuelan government," Camacaro said.
Venezuelan Ambassador Bernardo Alvarez, who travels often around the country pitching Chavez's policies, also argues that the lobbying is mostly defensive because Chavez foes would like to see sterner, Cuba-style U.S. sanctions imposed on Venezuela.
The Bush administration has ended most forms of aid and weapons sales to Venezuela, saying its government has refused to cooperate on issues like drug trafficking and terrorism.
"Ours is a government with an alternative vision that has been demonized," Alvarez told The Miami Herald. "Unfortunately, we must coexist with an administration — parts of an administration — that after the ... Sept. 11 events revived the Cold War in its most brutal form."
Alvarez has also been busy promoting the subsidized heating-oil program for America's poor, handled by the Boston-based nonprofit Citizens Energy and CITGO, a unit of the state-run Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. (PDVSA), which owns several U.S. refineries and franchises 8,000 U.S. gas stations.
Calling it the largest social program ever run by an oil firm, CITGO distributed 66 million gallons of heating oil last winter and hopes to double that volume this winter, reaching 220,000 U.S. households. Citizens Energy calculates that each household could save $320 per winter.
CITGO, which does not operate in Alaska, has also donated more than $5 million to Alaskan American Indian organizations — the estimated cost of 100 gallons each for about 12,000 households. In addition, the company donated $3.3 million to community groups in the South Bronx, and Alvarez says similar donations are in the works elsewhere.
All of this gives Chavez a big U.S. footprint, reaching homes in 23 states, plus about 200 Indian tribes. The heating-oil program even garnered recognition from Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman, who told the Reuters news agency that he wished "more companies did it."
But CITGO's links to Chavez have also spurred scattered calls to boycott its gas stations, including one billboard put up by a local businessman in Alabama — with a photo of Chavez holding up a CITGO logo — that read, "Don't buy gas from this ass." Some Alaskans have refused CITGO's aid.
Citizens Energy founder Joseph P. Kennedy, son of former Sen. Robert Kennedy, was unapologetic about teaming up with Chavez during the launch at Holland's home last month. The U.S. government, he said, regularly deals with countries accused of human-rights abuses, like China and Saudi Arabia.
"I don't hear anybody going after these other countries for the policies they practice," he said. "I would just ask you to be fair and reasonable."
Chavez has not totally shunned traditional lobbying. Four years ago, the embassy hired Patton Boggs, a powerful Washington lobby group, but the arrangement lasted only a few months. Alvarez declined to go into details.
And according to filings with the Foreign Agents Registration unit of the Department of Justice, between 2004 and early 2007, the embassy paid $3,000 to $15,000 a month to Segundo Mercado-Llorens, a member of the Discalced Carmelite Friars turned lobbyist for labor unions, to build up its internal lobbying capabilities, including training for Venezuelan diplomats.
Much of the lobbying legwork falls on the Venezuela Information Office, set up in 2004 as a semi-autonomous embassy outreach unit. The embassy spent a little more than $1 million on that office in the year ending Aug. 31, 2007, according to Department of Justice filings. The office employs a handful of activists who are paid $30,000 to $60,000 a year.
According to the office's logs for the year ending last August, the group made 342 contacts with nongovernmental organizations, via e-mail, phone or in person, with journalists, local officials, academics and students.
Many journalists received e-mails "suggesting ideas for balanced reporting." The office also asks activists to complain against alleged newspaper biases. One 2006 e-mail complained of the "extreme hostility toward Venezuela" by The Washington Post and provided a link to "make your voice heard" at the newspaper. Similar alerts targeted The Miami Herald, The Denver Post and other media.
The Venezuelan unit contacted only eight offices in the U.S. Congress, where Chavez appears to have few friends.
During a visit to Caracas, Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., who participated in a group of U.S. and Venezuelan lawmakers created around 2003 to ease bilateral tensions, endorsed Chavez's efforts to free hostages held by Colombian rebels and said relations between the countries require "mutual respect."
Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., praised Chavez for his aid to America's poor after the Venezuelan president traveled in past years to the Bronx and Harlem to launch his heating-oil program.
But most mainstream liberal groups, like MoveOn.org, ignore Chavez, and a resolution passed by the Senate condemning Chavez's decision last year to shut down an opposition TV station was backed by Sens. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Christopher Dodd.