Hugo Chavez has left the stage but he hasn’t left the scene.
The late Venezuelan leader, a leftist firebrand, was inserted into the 2016 U.S. presidential race on Tuesday when Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent seeking the Democratic nomination, accused supporters of Democrat Hillary Clinton of smearing him by linking him to Chavez.
“They suggested I’d be friendly with Middle East terrorist organizations, and even tried to link me to a dead communist dictator,” Sanders said in a fundraising email that criticized a super political action committee called Correct the Record, which supports Hillary Clinton.
The link Sanders referred to was first reported Monday by The Huffington Post, and it was a slam on Vermont, Sanders’ home state, accepting a donation of home heating oil from Venezuela’s state oil company, known by its acronym PDVSA. The super PAC, which is not controlled by Clinton herself, tried to link Sanders, an avowed socialist, to Chavez.
But Sanders’ response called Chavez a “dead communist dictator,” which didn’t sit well with Venezuela’s ambassador to the United States, Maximilien Arvelaiz.
“I could send a couple of good books to Bernie Sanders,” he quipped.
Chavez was a fierce foe of U.S. policy who once, before the United Nations General Assembly, referred to former President George W. Bush as “the devil.” Chavez died on March 5, 2013, after a two-year battle with cancer.
While a critic of Washington, Chavez was elected repeatedly in balloting that most international observers declared legitimate.
“Venezuela has become . . . the bad guy. We’re the villain,” lamented Arvelaiz.
He suggested that Sanders watch the Oliver Stone movie “South of the Border,” which documented the influence in Latin America of Chavez’s lift-the-poor ideas – which are ironically similar to those espoused by Sanders.
The alleged smear on Sanders had to do with home-heating oil donations from Citgo to help poor Americans in Vermont and elsewhere in the U.S. Northeast. Since 1990, Citgo has been a wholly owned subsidiary of PDVSA. Citgo operates refineries in Texas, Louisiana and Illinois, and retail gasoline stations across much of the United States.
Amid a price spike after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, Venezuela began donating heating oil to the poor in Northeastern U.S. cities. The program, which involves both discounted and free heating oil, began with the help of former Rep. Joseph Kennedy II, D-Mass., and has continued ever since. It’s even touted on Citgo’s website as a symbol of corporate responsibility.